Thursday December 20, 2012

Ah, the joys of modern technology.

Today’s message of caution: smartphones. Specifically: smartphone apps. More specifically: smartphone apps and children.

Chances are, if you have a smartphone -- or a tablet, for that matter -- you’ve downloaded an app or two (or, more likely, more). And if you have, it would have behooved you to pay special attention to the hidden cost to those "free" apps: your privacy. Most of the free apps available in markets allow for the collection of your personal information, anything from phone numbers dialed to usage habits to location(!). (Thank you, GPS!)

And while many adults should take the steps to educate themselves in some capacity regarding the affect these apps might have on their phones -- remember the phrase "buyer beware" -- it’s a whole other matter when children are the ones being targeted.

In a report released last week, the Federal Trade Commission stated that hundreds of gaming and education apps most popular with children fail to give parents basic information about data collection. This isn’t just the ever ubiquitous smartphones; Apps are available on handheld reading devices, handheld gaming systems and most anything else with the ability to go online. Once downloaded, these apps can transmit children’s personal information -- at times including location -- to advertising and marketing firms.

As reported in a recent editorial in The Denver Post, "In 60 percent of the children’s apps tested, the identification number associated with the device was transmitted to a third party. However, only 20 percent of apps disclosed the data collection and transmission."

Many believe this report is just a first step by the FTC as it prepares to enforce new rules regarding children and online privacy.

We can concede that data collection, in this day and age, is going to be a fact of life. But it is assuring to know people are willing to engage in the conversation. When it comes to protecting children and shielding them from the dangers of the Internet, ultimately the onus falls to parents. Don’t you think parents’ jobs became a lot easier, in that respect, if they are aware of possible data collection capabilities for the latest gadgets they’re choosing to purchase for their kids.

Should parents be more involved with their children’s online lives? Of course. Should it be their responsibility to monitor online and app usage? We think so.

But we also think parents need clear information and guidelines when making those judgements. As the FTC report points out, that’s not happening. And that’s why we’re joining the call for clear and simple regulations when it comes to children’s use of devices, hardware and software that could be used to collect personal data.