FTC finds privacy disclosures improved in kid's apps

Still, less than half of children's apps have direct links to their privacy policies, the agency finds

Mobile apps aimed at children have improved privacy disclosures in the past three years, but as a group, still need work, according to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission.

About 45 percent of children's apps now include a direct link to privacy policies on their app store pages, according to survey results from the FTC's Office of Technology Research and Investigation. That's up from just 20 percent in December 2012, the FTC said in a blog post Thursday.

Still, "the glass is both half-full and half-empty," wrote the FTC's Kristin Cohen and Christina Yeung, with the research and investigation office. "For many kids' apps ... parents still don't have an easy way to learn about their data collection and usage practices."

The research office looked at 364 kid's apps in Google Play and the Apple App Store.

In addition to the 164 children's apps that had direct links to their privacy policies, another 38 had privacy policies in what the FTC called "hard-to-find places," such as within the app or on the app developer's website. "Of course, information that’s difficult for parents to locate isn’t likely to be of much benefit to them," Cohen and Yeung wrote.

Just 48 of the children's apps included short-form disclosures in their apps describing how they share personal information with third parties, how they use persistent identifiers, if they allow in-app purchases and whether advertising is included in their apps, the FTC said.

The FTC doesn't know "for certain" why there has been an increase in easy-to-locate privacy policies since 2012, the FTC staffers wrote. The FTC's updated Children's Online Privacy Protection Rule, which makes it more difficult to track children online, went into effect in January 2013, and it may have contributed, they said.

The updated rule widened the definition of children's personal information to include geolocation data, photos and persistent cookies, and required that parents be notified before apps or websites collect that information.

Changes at the Google and Apple app stores may have also led to improvements, the FTC staffers wrote. Both companies now provide space on their app promotion pages for privacy disclosures, they said.

"Whatever the reasons for the increase in direct links to kids' app privacy policies, it's a step in the right direction," the FTC staffers added. "That said, a significant portion of kids’ apps still leave parents in the dark about the data collected about their children -- so there’s more work to be done."

ACT, a trade group representing many app developers, didn't have an immediate comment on the new survey results.

The FTC will release more information about its kids app survey in upcoming blog posts.

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