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Tuesday, December 11, 2012

New Concerns Over Apps for Children

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 w ithin a 54-yard radius, a user can catch it by tapping on the creature on the screen. The game also offers rewards â€" 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 Mobbles.com Web site did not post a privacy policy.

In the complaint, the children's advocates also suggested that the game's design raised safety concerns.

“Because children can only catch Mobbles within the green radius, the game encourages the child to wander around the neighborhood to fi nd Mobbles within range,” the complaint said. Because some Mobbles appear only in the evening, the complaint said, “the game encourages children to wander around at night to get close enough to catch an out-of-range Mobble.”

Mr. Curtelin said that the game did employ users' locations so that it could show them whether a virtual creature was in range but that the company did not store that data.

“At no point do we persistently store the data because we don't actually need it,” Mr. Curtelin said. “We didn't want to be in the position of being able to track users.”

A privacy policy on the site now explains that the game collects user names, e-mail addresses, Facebook IDs and locations from registered users. The policy also says the company does not share that data with or sell it to third parties.

By Tuesday afternoon, the Mobbles app was ag ain available on Google Play â€".with a disclaimer stating that the game was not intended for children under 13.

The description of the app on Google Play, however, suggests that Mobbles could appeal to younger children.

“Mobbles are small and fun creatures living around us!” it says. “Catch them in your smartphone and raise them !”

Now the site's privacy policy states that Mobbles is not intended for children under 13. Sites intended for older children are not required to comply with the children's online privacy law.

“Mobbles does not target children (younger than thirteen years of age) for collection of information online, and no one identified to be under the age of thirteen is permitted to create a profile or use the Services,” the site says. “By using the Games, you represent and warrant that you are” at least thirteen years old.

On Monday, the Federal Trade Commission released a study on children's apps in which regulators reported that hundreds of popular apps failed to provide parents with basic information about their data collection practices. The agency declined to name the apps included in its study.