Oh These Crazy Kids and Their Apps!Posted: February 21, 2012
I’m not entirely sure what we’re supposed to be writing about, so I’m just going to say a few words about an enlightening CNN article about apps I just read.
This particular article reported on the FTC’s investigation of app developers using data mining in children’s apps. While the investigation itself was inconclusive about the link between user information given in an app and the ads the app generated, the article painted a shady portrait of how data mining violates a child’s privacy.
Now maybe my creep factor is long since gone, but I feel like it is this type of exposure that produces the negative stigma we talked about in class a couple of weeks ago. Sure, I think that it sounds bad think about an app “gathering data to push targeted ads to your 6-year-old,” but let’s step outside of the hysteria box here.
What happens every time a kid sits down to watch his favorite Saturday morning cartoon? It isn’t ads about car insurance he’s seeing, it’s ads about toys. If it’s Transformers he’s watching, chances are he’ll see ads about action figures, toy trucks, and Nerf footballs. That’s an example of advertisers pushing targeted ads, but you don’t see parents in an uproar about it.
Now to be fair, I will say that perhaps everyone’s a little creeped out, because someone is actually selling a child’s information as opposed to simply pushing a product. The permissions screen alone can be a little eyebrow-raising.
According to the article, permission screens for a phone app or a tablet app are a little different than the permissions we’ve already discussed for Facebook apps. For example, a phone app may ask for “your phone’s contact list or location data,” but keep in mind that since it’s most likely not the child’s phone, the information the app is getting is the parent’s and not the child’s.
The FTC is also concerned about the fact the these kids’ apps can be linked to social media sites like Facebook, which children should not have an account on until they 13. Some of these apps can also facilitate financial transactions, like giving links to additional games and levels, without leaving the app itself. This causes concern that children can make purchases without parents, because credit card information may already be stored in the phone or tablet.
While I see these points as somewhat valid, I still believe that this type of advertising behavior isn’t that different from what’s already been done. How long have grocery stores kept the sugary cereal been at the eye level of a child, who can throw in box into a grocery cart without their parents knowing? What about television remotes? Kids could click a button that purchases a movie they want to see, and they don’t need a parent to approve that purchase. It’s up to the parents to keep the remote out of the hands of children that don’t know how to use it. Phones and tablets should be used the same way. It you don’t want to supervise your child’s use of technology, you should not give them access to it.
This may be a strong and harsh stance, especially considering I have no children, but the government can only do so much regulating. The rest is a gray area. According to the FTC, app stores may require developers to tell users what information they will be using, but the app store apparently does little to enforce this. It’s a similar problem to Facebook and its apps, but the difference here is that the app developers themselves can be punished.Here’s the example from the CNN article:
In September 2011, the FTC settled its first legal action against a mobile app developer in enforcement of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. According to the consent decree, the developer (W3 Innovations, which also has done business under the name “Broken Thumbs Apps”) was ordered to start publishing information about the kinds of data collected via their apps and how that data is shared, to get parental consent before collecting any new data, and to delete all the data they had collected so far — plus pay a $50,000 fine.
To me, what’s interesting is the fact that the developer didn’t get penalized under a general technology law, but a law that was specifically for children. Perhaps that’s the only legal restraint in place for app developers today, and if that’s not enough to alert your creep factor, nothing will.