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Mobile dev fined for games that break child privacy law

by Phil Hornshaw

In an effort to protect the privacy of children in the ever-expanding mobile sphere, the Federal Trade Commission has slapped several app developers some pretty substantial fines.

The fines are the result of violations of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act and the FTC’s own rules, which state that companies can’t gather personal information about children younger than 13 without first getting the approval of a parent or guardian. The FTC says apps fall under these rules because they send their information over the Internet.

Latest to receive a reprimand from the FTC is W3 Innovations, the parent company of BrokenThumbsApps, which makes games for Apple’s iOS platform. The FTC filed a lawsuit over the use of information in the apps, and W3 has already settled and paid a $50,000 fine.

Mashable’s story on the matter included some of the FTC’s accusations over some of BrokenThumbApps’ iPhone apps, including its title Emily’s Dress Up:

In additional to the collection and maintenance of over 30,000 emails, containing email addresses, Defendants have collected, maintained, and/or disclosed personal information from over 300 Emily’s Girl World app users and approximately 290 Emily’s Dress Up app users who have registered to submit comments.

W3 agreed to delete all the information it had gathered in addition to paying the fine. But BrokenThumbsApps isn’t the only company to get in trouble with the FTC over the rule: companies like Sony, Etch-A-Sketch and Xanga all have incurred fines for their Internet activities -- $1 million for Sony and Xanga, $35,000 for Etch-A-Sketch.

But apps are a different field and often there’s a lot more information flying around between app developers and the mobile devices on which they are used, making privacy a concern. Google and Apple got into some trouble with Congress and the FTC a few months ago over location data being saved by devices and the apps they use, sparking privacy concerns. Google dodged most of the bullets there, but Apple was singled-out because of a bug that was holding location data in an unencrypted cache folder in the operating system that was basically accessible to anyone who happened to get hold of a device.

It’s conceivable that lots more games could be gathering information about their users, even if those users are children, whether by design or inadvertently. It has been shown on more than one occasion that many apps send data back to their parent companies for the purposes of advertising, even though federal regulators and Google and Apple have rules against that kind of information gathering. In Google’s Android Market, where apps are not nearly as well regulated as in Apple’s iTunes App Store, the threat is even greater.

The best line of defense at the moment is parental involvement, it seems. Paying attention to what apps kids are using and what information those apps ask of those children is the best way to keep that information off the Internet and out of the hands of others.