Kids’ smartphone apps like to phone home and be snoopy

Not all parents who download smartphone apps for their children, or allow their children to pick their own apps, check up on the privacy consequences. But according to a government agency those parents who do try to look for possible drawbacks will often be out of luck.

The Federal Trade Commission looked at a sample of 400 apps in the Apple and Google stores that are specifically aimed at children. It follows a similar survey last year and the results are much the same.

Overall 80 percent of the apps provided no information prior to installation about data policies. That’s important as almost 60 percent of the apps were transferring some form of user data to the developer or a third party.

Most of this data was simply an identification code for the specific smartphone. However, the FTC warned that the data collected across all the applications was often concentrated in the hands of a few companies such as advertiser networks; one unnamed third party got data from 100 of the 400 apps studied. This made it much easier for such companies to build up a picture of the child’s activity and interests.

Fortunately more serious forms of user data were shared much less often: a dozen apps shared geolocation, while three shared the handset’s phone number.

The FTC remains unconvinced there are innocent explanations for the data sharing. Associate director Jessica Rich said “… in general, this doesn’t happen by accident.  It means that somebody made a business decision to transmit this information.”

The study also found many apps contained potentially problematic features given the child audience but didn’t give warnings. For example, 58 percent of the apps contain some form of advertising but only 15 percent warned parents about this in advance. Some such ads were worrying because they were effectively targeted at children, while others raised concerns because they were completely inappropriate for kids.

Meanwhile 17 percent of the apps contained some form of in-app purchase, in some cases as high as $29.99. The FTC noted that both app stores contain some form of warning system covering all the apps, though argued that these weren’t clear or prominent enough.

[Data Privacy Picture from]