Do your kids’ mobile apps respect their privacy?

Find out how to protect them

Toddlers, kids, and tweens now have access to smartphones and tablets that offer a wealth of applications to learn, play and watch.  The average age for a child in the United States to get his or her first cell phone is 11.6 years[i], and many children are getting phones even earlier.

Rather than purchasing children a basic phone, an increasing number of parents are choosing to make that first phone a smartphone – either as a new purchase or as a hand-me-down when either parent upgrades to a newer device. The beauty of these phones and tablets is that they have the capabilities of an internet-connected computer, but that’s also their drawback.   

There are millions of applications, or apps as they’re commonly called, readily available through operating system app stores, carriers’ handset manufacturers, and third parties. They’re easy to download; and while many are free, even most of the for-pay apps cost very little to use. But how do you know if the application your child is downloading is legitimate – or contains malware – or what information the application is collecting about your child?

To protect your child’s device from malware, always check to see who developed an app and what the company’s reputation is; look at reviews they’ve received and only download apps from sources that have a strong history and trust rating. Stay on the lookout for any unusual behavior on your phone, and install a mobile security app.

To protect your child’s privacy, look at the types of personal information the app is requesting permission to access. If the app wants more information than they need to provide their service, or the application does not give you a clear understanding of the information they collect, don’t download it. Find a different app.

 For example, unless the application has a mapping or direction feature, there is no need for the application to collect the location of your child. You want to find out if the application will do the following:

  • Put your child in contact and communication with strangers

  • Leverages social networking services

  • Collects information about your child’s contacts

  • Gathers your child’s phone number

  • Stores his or her passwords or other unique identifiers

  • Allows him or her to make purchases

  • Is likely to spam your child with targeted advertising

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) recently issued a report[ii] that concluded: “neither the app stores nor the app developers provide the information parents need to determine what data is being collected from their children, how it is being shared or who will have access to it.”

According to FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz, "Companies that operate in the mobile marketplace provide great benefits, but they must step up to the plate and provide easily accessible basic information so that parents can make informed decisions about the apps their kids use. Right now, it is almost impossible to figure out which apps collect data and what they do with it. The kids’ app ecosystem needs to wake up, and we want to work collaboratively with industry to help ensure parents have the information they need."

Over the course of the next year, the FTC will begin evaluating specific applications to see if they comply with the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which requires online service operators to provide notice and obtain consent from parents before collecting any information about kids under 13 years of age. These efforts will spur companies to action, but in the interim, you are stuck with trying to determine how to best protect the privacy of your child.

To understand the privacy vs. exposure tradeoffs, start by reading the information provided about any applications your kids want to download. Quality companies should provide you with clear information about what they are collecting. 

Consider whether family protection tools (also called parental controls) will be a benefit for your child. These tools can help monitor and protect your child from some aspects of mobile risks, and based on your child’s age and maturity, this type of tool may be of benefit.

Talk about acceptable phone and application use

Then, think through the functionality of the application and the capability and age of your child. For example, if the application leverages their location, determine if you are comfortable with the app provider knowing exactly where your child is; if the app uses their location to get navigational directions you’re likely to be more comfortable than if the app uses their location to broadcast that information to everyone they are “friends” with, or to target them with advertising. You also want to know if they resell the information they collect.

As you evaluate the app’s functionality, ask yourself if your child has the needed skills and maturity to protect his or her privacy when using an app’s features.

If the app leverages social networks, but your child is too young to be on social networks, then it isn’t a good app for him or her at this time. If your child is old enough to use social networks, first be sure you have a discussion with your child so they know your expectations of exactly what he or she can and cannot do or say on social networking sites. Be sure to include in your app conversation the potential risks and risk mitigation strategies for any features enabled.

Safety, security and privacy conversations between parents and kids about the use of mobile apps are simply not happening enough. A recent study[iii] by Verizon Wireless found that too few parents are having ongoing mobile safety and privacy conversations with their children, and the conversations they have are not covering the full set of functionality available within apps.

The best defense your child can have against mobile and other risks is for you to help them be resilient, know what is and isn’t appropriate, what to keep private, when to get help from you and from the app or service provider and why their privacy matters.   

[i] Verizon Wireless National Online Survey conducted by Synovate, in July 2011.

[ii] FTC Report - Mobile Apps for Kids: Current Privacy Disclosures Are Disappointing

[iii] Verizon Wireless National Online Survey conducted by Synovate, in July 2011.

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