Food apps could be collecting children's data

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PHOENIX -- With a dizzying array of choices, navigating the snack aisle at the grocery store could already be a parent's worst nightmare -- from lollipops to Lifesavers, all of those sweet treats are calling your kids.

And we do mean calling -- right on your iPhone or iPad. It is how some food companies have found a sweet spot to grab your kids' attention.

We are talking about video game apps, where some popular sweet snacks like ICEE, Sour Patch Kids, even Jell-O come to life right on the screen.

And while advertising these kinds of foods to kids on television is limited, Kevin Hammons an MBA student at Arizona State University's WP Carey School of Business, said there are no limits on the Internet.

“Their capacity to advertise to these kids, they can do it, if they are specifically targeting these children on these apps and the parents allow for that sort of download,” he said.

And while some consumer groups worry these apps are basically nonstop ads, Hammons said there is something parents need to be even more worried about than a sales pitch.

“You probably wouldn't expect the random game my child downloaded just gave away all the websites I visited on my phone, as well,” he said.

Hammons said that can easily happen.

Professor Marilyn Prosch at the Privacy by Design Research lab at WP Carey said by design, lots of information may be gathered just by default.

“And a lot of these apps are collecting their location data, pictures, and also any of their contacts,” Prosch said.

She said it is not unusual for large companies to use separate app development companies to build the games, and those developers may not know or even think about privacy rules. But, Hammons said there are some rules for children.

“The Children’s On-line Protection Act basically says if they are knowingly targeting children that is an area where they cannot collect their data. They can't ask for it,“ Hammons said.

Prosch said many big players in both the food and entertainment industry have fought that act, but it is working, albeit slowly.

“They have gone after some big ones and they fined them and they are making them get rid of the data," Prosch said. "However, it is still in its infancy to really, really put some teeth into it. “

And there are lots of gray areas. Wrigley’s, which makes a Life Savers app, says they don't specifically target children ... and other companies have made the same argument.

And Prosch said because of that, the focus needs to shift not just from who is being targeted, but what businesses really need to know in return, saying, “We think about what we are collecting, why we are collecting it, and do we really need it, and is it in the child's safety.“

Again many of these companies say their games and apps are not specifically aimed at children.

Prosch and Hammons both agree that the one of the best ways to protect privacy is to educate businesses about what data is really needed, why it is needed, and how long they should keep it.