Privacy breach of smart phone apps presents child safety concerns

Monday, September 10th, 2012

Photo: Tony Buser (Flickr)

CyberParenting Topics on TheFish103.9FM Tuesday Mornings

This week marks the release of the iPhone 5, which promises more computing power and a larger screen, illustrating emphatically how the convergence of technology has brought the power of the PC into the palm of our hands. Smart phones and personal mobile devices promise convenient, easy access to web-enabled applications and communications. 

As wireless Internet devices offer children greater ease of access to people, applications and information, parental oversight remains even more imperative to groom younger children to set and maintain personal boundaries in the net.

 Authority scope creep and COPPA

If we understand authority to mean “the right to control, command, or determine” the use of personal data, contacts and images, then we must remain in control of granting permission to what data the applications gather and how it is used. And this means, not downloading apps where personal data collection and privacy policy is not explicit.

After interviewing law enforcement and surveying experts, it is clear that the smart phone app market remains much like the Wild West with regard to private data. The Child On Line Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) specifies how developers are required to protect the privacy of children using the applications, yet there is very little control and oversight. And at the end of the day, it is difficult to authenticate the age of the user.

According to one of my sources, COPPA may be revised later in the year because of these challenges.

(Download samples and order The Authority In Me)

I have not yet found any resource to help parents readily determine whether an application is COPPA compliant. And according to a February 2012 FTC report, the markets for applications is expanding exponentially. According to this report:

“When Apple’s iTunes App Store and Google’s Android Market first launched in 2008, smartphone users could choose from about 600 apps. Today, there are more than 500,000 apps in the Apple App store and 380,000 apps in the Android Market, which consumers can access from a variety of mobile devices, including smartphones and tablets… This report highlights the lack of information available to parents prior to downloading mobile apps for their children, and calls on industry to provide greater transparency about their data practices”  

 It is very difficult to monitor and regulate.

Boundary violations

Photo: Dan4th (Flickr)

Many smart phone apps are “free” downloads, which encourage you to upgrade to fee-based functions later, and the purchases are typically small dollar amounts on the parents’ account or credit card. So many parents have expressed astonishment of fees on their bill for apps downloaded.  Some of the kids downloading these apps are as young as four and five years old.

Of greater concern is that many of these applications are collecting personal data, while users are unaware. 

Some examples in recent headlines include McDonalds and General Mills engaging children in on-line games and encouraging them to provide contact information for their personal networks. Popular games like Angry Birds are also reportedly collecting information such as GPS location of the user.

This is a great opportunity to communicate your values and what it means to have personal computing power (i.e., we manage the tool; the tool does not manipulate us).  Speaker and author on parenting, Peggy Harper Lee of Sacramento, encourages parents to make contracts with children for the safe and proper use of the smart phones, and then inspect what you expect.

Beyond the concern about expense is the exposure to of children to nefarious and commercially exploitive influences. Most applications are networked, so unless your child has privacy settings in their social media application, downloading a game opens them to connecting with pretty much anyone.

According to Internet security expert, Katie LeClerc Greer the big things to watch out for with smart phone apps are free texting and chat applications. Two examples are FreeText and FaceKandi (chat). The texting applications provide a phone number and many parents believe that by providing their child an iTouch, it is not the same as a mobile phone. A free text app gives them the capability of a mobile phone. Similarly, the free chat applications expose kids to facetime video sessions and text sessions with strangers from around the globe – much of it is X rated.

Other examples of networked applications in addition to Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace, include YouTube, Instagram, and Tumblr. Pretty much any new application will have network functionality. Expect it.

Parental Controls

Smart phones have parental control settings. Below are some tips and resources offered by YourSphere to help you develop and implement house rules and restrictions for smart phone usage – including disabling application purchases, blocking access to various apps including social media (such as YouTube).

Disable app purchases for Android and iOS phones by YourSphere

How to set up security for your child’s smart phone by YourSphere


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About Joanna Jullien

Joanna Jullien

Joanna ( and her husband have raised two sons in Roseville, CA. She has a degree from U.C. Berkeley in Social Anthropology (corporate culture). Her honors thesis was awarded the Kroeber Prize and funding from National Science Foundation grant. Joanna writes to help parents with the modern-day leadership challenges of raising children. She is a contributing writer for The Granite Bay View, the Press Tribune, the Sacramento Examiner, and editor of Banana Moments.