The Times West Virginian

December 12, 2012

Technology laws must be updated to protect kids

Times West Virginian

— Want to draw a picture or play a game and have your name, phone number, email address and even your exact geographic location sent to software companies and advertisers?

Yeah, there’s an app for that.

The Federal Trade Commission is currently looking into applications, or “apps,” for mobile devices that do exactly that. The kicker though? These apps are specifically geared toward children using tablets, phones and MP3 players.

The staff of the FTC randomly chose 200 apps from carrier stores by typing in the word “kids.” About 60 percent of those apps, once downloaded onto a phone, transmitted the device information to software companies, data brokers and advertising networks, which compile consumer information to develop marketing campaigns.

But a device ID, unique to the exact mobile device you are using, is a pathway to even more information. More than a dozen of those randomly selected apps retrieved the exact geographic location of the device.

“It’s not hypothetical that this information was shared,” Jessica Rich, associate director of the FTC’s financial practices division, told The Associated Press.

Now remember, these apps are specifically designed for and used by children.

According to the FTC report “mobile apps can siphon data to ‘invisible and unknown’ third parties that could be used to develop a detailed profile of a child without a parent’s knowledge or consent.”

Only about 20 percent of these apps had any privacy disclosures, and even then, the disclosures were inadequate. And most of them linked to social networks like Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest, which should not be available to a child under the age of 13.

And in this test sampling, just 200 out of the thousands and thousands of apps out there geared toward children, one such game had banner ads across the bottom of the screen advertising “1000s of Sexy Singles.”

And it’s an audience catered to children.

Parenting experts used to recommend that computers be kept in common living areas so that parents could monitor their child’s Internet usage. But these days, everyone carries a computer around in their pocket or backpack as smartphones and tablets have evolved.

Are these companies violating privacy rights of children? Maybe. Is this unethical, unfair, deceptive or illegal behavior? The FTC plans to make that determination.

Right now, the FTC wants to overhaul the 1998 Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, which would have even stronger safeguards for children under the age of 13. It’s probably the right move. Technology developed last year is outdated. Think about laws that govern technology and how outdated they must be after 14 years.

Laws have to keep up with technology. There is no way to write an expansive law to protect the rights and privacy of children today for tomorrow’s technology. Laws have to regularly be reviewed, updated and current.

Technology is measured by months. In March, Apple and Google had 880,000 apps available for mobile devices. Today, there are 1.4 million. That’s 1.4 million reasons why we need to think about protecting the privacy of our children.