Sunday Age

Privacy concern as apps share data from kids left to their own devices

Date: 23/12/2012
Words: 593
Source: SAG
          Publication: The Sunday Age
Section: News
Page: 3
HUNDREDS of popular children's smartphone and tablet apps are sharing personal information - including location, phone numbers and device IDs - with third parties without notifying parents or asking for permission.

Many contain undisclosed advertising, links to social networking services and opportunities to purchase extra content within an app.

Australian Privacy Commissioner Timothy Pilgrim told Fairfax Media he was "very concerned" following the release of a US Federal Trade Commission study on children's apps this month, which reported that hundreds of the most popular apps failed to provide parents with basic information about their data collection practices.

The report said the apps often transmitted the precise location and unique serial code of a mobile device as well as the phone number and other personal details to app developers, marketers and advertisers. This information could be then used to find, contact or track children across different apps or websites without their parents' knowledge or consent.

A spokesman for Attorney-General Nicola Roxon said apps breaching the privacy of children would be "completely unacceptable" and she would ask the Privacy Commissioner to "consider using his enforcement and investigative powers to see if any action can be taken".

Mark Flynn's two sons downloaded their apps from his wife's iTunes account. Mr Flynn, who works in IT, said the arrangement let him check what had been downloaded.

He recently refused his 10-year-old son Chris' request to play a virtual soccer game that would have connected him online with adults.

He also turns off the location services on their phones - Chris has an iPod Touch5 and James, 12, inherited his mother's old iPhone 4.

"The internet is collecting data all the time," he said. "It's a fact you have to accept or you're not going to use the technology at all."

But he said it was not appropriate to collect data from children without "explicit parental consent". There needed to be something more than burying clauses in lengthy terms and conditions that "nobody reads".

Of the 400 Apple App Store and Google Android apps reviewed by the Federal Trade Commission, only one in five disclosed any information about their data collection practices. The report did not name apps but several apps, including SpongeBob Diner Dash and popular free kids game Mobbles, have been temporarily pulled from app stores due to complaints.

But Mr Pilgrim said that unlike in the US where the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act requires website operators and app developers to get parents' permission before collecting and sharing names, addresses, phone numbers and other personal information obtained from children under 13, there were no such laws in Australia.

A separate but related issue is apps that appear to be free but can end up leaving parents with unexpected, expensive bills, or "bill shock".

One parent told Fairfax Media his 12-year-old son spent more than $40 for virtual coins by a "free" app, DragonVale, which he only discovered when the credit card statement arrived.

The Commonwealth Consumer Affairs Advisory Council is conducting an inquiry into apps, which Assistant Treasurer David Bradbury said would look at issues such as whether "the marketing of these games could mislead consumers, including children, into making further purchases without knowing they will incur real costs".

The inquiry is open for submissions until January 31.

Martin Janes, chief executive of Otium Interactions, which makes the Find the Kidz app that allows parents to track their kids via the home screen on their smartphone, said he was concerned about the amount of information collected and shared in relation to children. He said his app did not collect personal information.

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