Phone apps collecting data on kids

The developer behind Mobbles, a popular free game app for children, temporarily pulled the product from the Apple App store and Google Play store on Tuesday after learning that it was the subject of a complaint to federal authorities by children’s advocates.

The app, introduced this year, is an animated, location-based game in which children collect, take care of and trade colorful virtual pets called Mobbles.

On Tuesday, the Center for Digital Democracy, a nonprofit group in Washington, filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, claiming that Mobbles’ data collection practices violated the federal Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act.

That law requires an operator of a Web site or online service directed at children under 13 to provide notice of its information collection practices. The operator must also obtain verifiable permission from a parent before collecting or sharing personal information like a child’s name, e-mail address or physical address.

According to the complaint, the Mobbles app collected personal information from children “without providing any notice to parents and without even attempting to obtain prior, verifiable parental consent.”

In a phone interview on Tuesday, Alexandre Curtelin, co-founder of Mobbles, said that the app did collect users’ e-mail addresses and did use their locations for certain game features, but that the app was not directed at those under 13.

“We don’t ask for the age of the user,” he said. “So we cannot target users under 13.”

Here’s how the app works: The “Catch a Mobble” feature determines a user’s location and then shows the user a map of the area. If a Mobble is within a 54-yard radius, a user can catch it by tapping on the creature on the screen. The game also offers rewards – like virtual currency it calls “crystals” to pay for in-game purchases — if players provide their e-mail addresses so they can receive a newsletter or if they e-mail their friends about their activities on the game, the complaint said.

The complaint said the game did not notify parents that it collected children’s locations and e-mail addresses,  nor did it obtain parental permission for collecting such information. According to the complaint, the Mobbles app did not link to a privacy policy explaining the app’s data collection practices, and the Web site did not post a privacy policy.



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