Faced With Privacy Complaint, Mobbles Pulls App

Kids' app collected personal info without parental permission

Mobbles pre-emptively took its mobile app for kids temporarily offline this morning after learning that a privacy group would be filing a complaint against it with the Federal Trade Commission.

According to the complaint filed by the Center for Digital Democracy, Mobbles, a game involving virtual pets, collected personal information from children such as email addresses without parental permission, violating the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act. The game also uses geolocation to determine where kids are playing the game, encouraging kids to find, capture, care and trade virtual pets.

Ranked by iTunes as one of the top 100 "entertainment" apps, it's a good bet Mobbles is one of the hundreds of kids' apps surveyed by the FTC, which reported Monday that 80 percent of all kids' apps don't even have a privacy policy. Based on the dismal results, the FTC said it was opening a probe into kids' apps for potential violations of Coppa.

"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. In the process, these companies are capturing a wide range of personal information…Such practices not only violate the law but also fly in the face of industry promises to protect children's privacy in the digital media marketplace," said Kathryn Montgomery, a professor of communication at American University.

Mobbles, a San Francisco-based start up, was taken totally by surprise, and immediately took the app offline and posted a statement on its website, before it received any official notice. Alex Curtelin, the co-founder and CEO, chalked it up to poor communication about how it communicated its privacy policies.

"We don't store any sensitive information," Curtelin told Adweek. "We only use nickname and email of users to operate the app. Articles are implying that we are collecting a bunch of information. We are being careful not to collect information. There is no advertising, so we don't share any data with any commercial entity," he said. 

Mobbles said the company is open to speaking with the FTC to make sure it is complying with all the rules. "The mobile area is moving fast and it's hard to know exactly what the rules are. We're trying our best to communicate more clearly," Cutelin said.

The new Mobbles version with an improved privacy disclaimer will be available on the Android system in the next day or so, but the Apple version could take much longer, Curtelin said.

The CDD, which filed the complaint, isn't buying Mobbles' explanation. "Just plastering a disclaimer on a privacy policy after you've been unmasked by an FTC complaint doesn't do it," said Jeff Chester, CDD's executive director. "They haven't acknowledged that they are engaging in practices which violate COPPA. They need to reconsider whether they should be in this business, if they don't understand what the problem is."

Privacy groups such as the CDD have been ratcheting up their pressure on the FTC to vote in favor of updates to Coppa that would cover persistent identifiers and geolocation as personal information. The CDD plans to file an additional complaint about another kids mobile app on Thursday.

The FTC's vote on the updates to COPPA, is expected by the end of the year.