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FTC: Apps For Children Raise Privacy Concerns

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Parents with tech-savvy kids might want to pay attention to this next story. The makers of mobile apps for youngsters are taking some heat after a new report from the Federal Trade Commission. It was released yesterday, and it says the apps are not transparent enough about the personal information they collect. As NPR's Martin Kaste reports, it's just the latest sign of the government's concern about children's privacy online.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Ah, the iPad table at the Apple Store: the modern-day version of Pinocchio's Pleasure Island.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Cool.

KASTE: As in, what kid could resist? But unlike Pleasure Island, there are a few rules in this digital domain, namely, a 1998 Federal law called the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, or COPPA. If you know what to look for, you can see COPPA's effect on websites aimed at children, like Nick.com.

RYAN CALO: SpongeBob appears to be pointing to the birthday in particular.

KASTE: At the University of Washington Law School, privacy scholar Ryan Calo clicks over to the site's club, where kids can create a screen name.

CALO: It can have three to 10 characters, but it says: Don't use your real name or any personal information.

KASTE: Why not? Because COPPA bars companies from collecting the personal information of kids younger than 13, unless they first get their parents' consent. Catherine Montgomery was one of those who pushed for the law, back in the '90s. At the time, she says, media companies were getting kids' information by just asking for it.

CATHERINE MONTGOMERY: Children were being asked to provide information to the Batman site: Be a good citizen of Gotham and fill out the census.

KASTE: These days, sites and apps don't have to ask anymore. Instead, they use cookies and other systems that assign ID numbers to devices. It's a number that's theoretically anonymous, but which, in practice, can link advertisers to a wealth of detail about that device and that child.

MONTGOMERY: What we're seeing now is that the name is not as important as it used to be. They can know who you are without having to know your name.

KASTE: For the last year or so, the FTC has been considering whether to clarify that these ID numbers do, in fact, constitute personal information under COPPA. Catherine Montgomery, the Center for Digital Democracy and other groups have been pushing for the rule change, and the commissioners may vote on the matter before Christmas. The online industry is worried.

JON POTTER: I think that we need to think long and hard whether information is personal, and what it means for information to be personal.

KASTE: Jon Potter, president of the Application Developers Alliance, is one of those who says device IDs should not be considered personal information - in part, he says, because we keep getting new toys.

POTTER: We all know from experience that consumers are holding onto their devices for 12, 18, 24 months.

KASTE: Privacy activists, on the other hand, are eager to see the FTC brand cookies and the like as personal information for kids, because once that happens, it's easier for them to make the case that that's personal information for everybody, and that even adults should be able to chose whether to be tracked online.

Big data and online advertisers are aware of this argument, and they've lobbied the FTC not to make the change. The Interactive Advertising Bureau declined to comment to NPR, but in a statement filed with the FTC last year, it warned that the proposed changes to COPPA would likely create, quote, "a more burdensome Internet experience for parents, even as consumers demand simpler, more streamlined interactions."

Martin Kaste, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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