The findings come ahead of a landmark vote at the FTC on new online child privacy rules that aim to curb companies from tracking pre-teens on mobile devices. The agency and the Obama administration have pushed for stronger protections for children who are spending more time than ever online, thanks largely to the proliferation of smartphones and tablets in homes and schools.
While current law puts strict limits on advertising to children in print or on television, it provides fuzzier guidance on mobile technology, which can be far more invasive. Tech companies, for instance, can instantaneously locate a user, track a person’s social-media habits or keep a record of every Web site visited.
Those kinds of data, however sensitive to parents,have allowed companies to target ads and develop programs for children with a kind of precision that wasn’t available just a few years ago. The push by the government to update child privacy rules has faced resistance from Silicon Valley giants, including Facebook, Apple and Google, as well as the companies developing mobile apps. While they agree that children should be afforded special protections, they also argue some of the proposals would stifle a nascent and innovative industry.
Still, the FTC said it would launch “multiple” investigations into mobile apps companies that may have violated laws on deceptive practices or the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, a 1998 law that public interest groups say badly needs an update. The agency declined to identify the names or the number of companies that it would target in its probes.
“Our study shows that kids’ apps siphon an alarming amount of information from mobile devices without disclosing this fact to parents,” FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz said in a statement.
He added that app stores including Apple’s iTunes and Google Play should be scrutinized just as heavily as software developers. “All the companies in the mobile app space, especially the gatekeepers of the app stores, need to do a better job,” Leibowitz said.
No technology has been adopted faster by consumers — especially youths — than mobile gadgets. A majority of teens are now toting their own smartphones around school hallways and malls, allowing tech companies and advertisers to target ads to the owners’ tastes when they access games, youth-oriented social networks or math apps. And even toddlers, some as young as 2, are finding their way around their parents devices to play nursery-rhyme programs or alphabet games, enabling developers of such software to study their behavior and aim yet more products at them.