Privacy on Line? Good Luck Finding an App for That

Dear Mr. Dad: Like a lot of people, I sometimes let my 8-year old play with my smart phone while I’m driving. I’ve got things set up so he can’t download any apps by himself, but he’s talked me into a getting a bunch for him. It just hit me the other day that I don’t think I’ve ever seen any privacy policy notices with the apps. How do I know they aren’t spying on us?
A: Unfortunately, you don’t.  And given that 85% of Americans have a cell phone, (45% have smartphones) and 25% have tablets, your question is an excellent one. The good news is that we tend to take our privacy pretty seriously. A September, 2012 Pew report found that than half of app users “decided to not install a cell phone app when they discovered how much personal information they would need to share in order to use it,” And 30% of app users have “uninstalled an app that was already on their cell phone because they learned it was collecting personal information that they didn’t wish to share.”
What I find especially interesting is that we don’t seem to be nearly as concerned with our kids’ app privacy as we are with our own. You and I are among the nearly 60% of app-using parents who have downloaded at least one app for a child. However, not that many of us thought about our kids’ privacy. Clearly, it’s something we need to pay more attention to. It didn’t hit you until recently, and I have to admit I hadn’t even thought about it at all until I ran across two recent reports by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), that showed that developers of most apps for children are “sharing kids’ information with third parties without disclosing these practices to parents.”
The first report came out in February, 2012, with the rather uninspiring title, “Mobile Apps for Kids: Current Privacy Disclosures are Disappointing.” The report found that the majority of apps downloaded from either the Apple or Android stores didn’t include a privacy policy for parents to agree to before the download. In fact, “most apps failed to provide basic information about what data would be collected from kids, how it would be used, and with whom it would be shared.”
The second report—which was just released—went back to see whether anything had changed since the first one. This one, “Mobile Apps for Kids: Disclosures Still Not Making the Grade,” was just as depressing. Far too many app makers either have no privacy policy at all, or have one but then share information without permission. For example, while 60% of apps shared information about the phone or tablet with advertisers, analytics companies, or app developers, only 20% bothered to disclose that fact in advance. And while 58% of the apps contained ads, only 15% gave parents any warning.
So what can we do? Well, the FTC is urging mobile app developers to come up with some uniform “best practices” that would protect users’ privacy. They’re also developing education initiatives designed to help parents figure out what’s really going on with their information.
After doing a blog post on this topic a few days ago, I heard from one developer, Everloop.com, that makes privacy protected apps for kids, But ultimately, it’s up to us to be more vigilant and to make sure every piece of technology that our kids have access to will keep our private information private.