Apps collecting personal information from children

Photo credit: KEYE TV

It's an issue parents may not know exists. The Texas Attorney General's Office investigated children's applications, or apps, for your phone or tablet collecting personal information without your consent and without your knowledge. In two cases, app design companies were gathering specific geographic location of the user.

It came as a shock to mom of two and Austin Mom Blog contributor, Celina Zamora-Torres. Her two girls use entertaining and educational apps frequently. "You telling me that, makes me really concerned as a parent," said Zamora-Torres.

Zamora-Torres makes it a priority to check privacy polices and security settings, but Assistant Attorney General in the Consumer Protection Division Paul Singer said sometimes that is not enough. "Someone may install an app on their phone thinking its purely innocent," said Singer.

Singer said the two app developers they investigated, Ploosh LLC and Sun Ground, LLC, were not only breaking the law, but in court records KEYE discovered they were, "engaging in false, deceptive or misleading acts or practices regarding its collection of personal information from children. " According to the AG's office, the companies violated the Deceptive Trade Practices - Consumer Protection Act.

Sun Ground makes a series of puzzle games that are designed for children 2 and above. Ploosh makes interactive children's games such as Farm Friends and Christmas Story, according to court documents.

The Consumer Protection Division at the AG's office found that each time the apps were used, they "collected personal information from children, specifically geolocation coordinates."

"Those coordinates were specific enough to where you could just sort of cut and paste them into google and you would have a map of exactly, pinpointed where that person was when using that application," said Singer.

That information was then sent back to the company and ultimately a third party advertiser. From there, it's hard to know who access and what is done with the information.

"If they are inadvertently losing or having a breach of that particular information, that can be potentially very harmful to a child in particular whose info really shouldn't be out there," said Singer.

Singer said the companies could also use the information to sell adds targeted to the user that may not be appropriate for children.

"If a company asks for your name, your address, you know you have to enter it. This was completely hidden from the user," said Singer.

Ultimately both Ploosh and Sun Ground signed a court agreement to no longer collect geographical data and to maintain an up-to-date, clear privacy policy that is easy to access. (You can find some of the other terms of the Assurance of Voluntary compliance, here)

"(The AG investigation) absolutely provides some type of security, but my biggest fear always is that someone will always find a loop hole," said Zamora-Torres

Singer said staying on top of technology developments is the hardest part of his job. He said the AG's office is actively looking for and investigating companies, although he could not comment on ongoing investigations. He said vigilant parents like Zamora-Torres, help keep companies accountable.

"Consumer complaints are one of the greatest resources for us to know what is out there," said Singer.

The FTC is also interested in the issue. A recent survey showed less than half of apps geared toward children had a link to a privacy policy available to parents before downloading the app.

"Just to wrap my head around that is scary," said Zamora-Torres. "Especially knowing where my child is and trying to protect both of them from exactly that."

While there is no foul-proof way for a consumer to determine if a company is breaking the law, Singer said parents should still 'do their homework.' Before downloading an app, read reviews about it. Also, look up information, or even Google search to learn more about the app developer.

Experts also say children's applications that blatantly advertise throughout the duration of use, might sell your information to advertisers. It is also important that the app has a privacy policy you can click on and read prior to downloading.

Statement from managing editor at Ploosh LLC:

"I updated the two apps to make sure that they do not collect any location information. I also worked with a lawyer to update our privacy policy document, and made sure that it is prominently accessible in the apps."

KEYE TV tried to contact Sun Ground LLC for a comment but did not hear back from the company.

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