Privacy group files complaint against kids' mobile game maker

Mobbles collects information without parental consent and encourages kids to 'wander' their neighborhoods, complaint says

The popular mobile children's game Mobbles collects personal information from children without providing notice to parents or attempting to get parental consent, in violation of U.S. law, a privacy group said in a complaint to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission.

The virtual pet game also encourages children to "wander around the neighborhood" to collect pets using a geolocation feature, with some Mobble pets only available by exploring at night, the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD) said in its complaint.

"By its very design, the Mobbles app takes unfair advantage of children's developmental vulnerabilities, and even potentially threatens their personal safety," Kathryn Montgomery, a children's privacy advocate and professor of communication at American University, said in a statement. "This complaint provides a glimpse into a much larger, rapidly growing children's mobile market, in which companies are unleashing all of the available techniques for targeting kids, including geolocation, instant rewards, and in-phone purchases."

Players can opt out of the Mobble collection feature in the app.

CDD filed the complaint Tuesday, a day after the FTC released a report saying many mobile apps targeting children collect and share personal information without informing parents. The FTC is investigating several mobile app makers for violating the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), an FTC official said Monday.

The CDD complaint also accuses Mobbles of violating COPPA, which sets privacy rules for apps targeting children.

Mobbles collects children's physical addresses, email addresses and geolocation information without parents' consent and fails to post its privacy policy in places required by COPPA, CDD said in the complaint. The app also allows children to purchase in-game items using Apple App Store or Google Play accounts.

In addition, Mobbles has access to a user's contact data, which "allows the app to read data about your contacts stored on your phone, including the frequency with which you've called, emailed, or communicated in other ways with specific individuals," according to information on the app at Google Play.

The Mobbles company said early Tuesday that it had not yet received official notice of the CDD complaint. "Thus it is impossible for us to respond in any intelligent way to allegations that we have neither seen nor analyzed in full," the company said in a statement. "Mobbles is committed to providing our users with the most positive experience possible. We're gamers ourselves and take the privacy of our users extremely seriously."

The company has taken the game offline to post a clearer privacy policy and review its privacy practices, the company said. The company has never stored any location data and doesn't share data with third parties, it added.

Mobbles has been available since May in the Apple App Store and Google Play. The game has ranked among the top 100 grossing entertainment apps in the Apple App Store in 24 countries and the top 10 in 10 countries, CDD said.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

Tags U.S. Federal Trade CommissionsecurityregulationKathryn MontgomeryCenter for Digital DemocracyMobblesgovernmentprivacy

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