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Group says Nickelodeon app violates kids' privacy

SpongeBob Diner Dash collects personal information from children in violation of U.S. law, the complaint says

Smartphone app SpongeBob Diner Dash violates U.S. law by collecting a "wide range" of personal information from children, including full names and email addresses, according to a complaint filed by the Center for Digital Democracy, an advocacy group.

The CDD complaint, filed with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, accuses television network Nickelodeon and mobile game-maker PlayFirst of violating the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) by using the game to collect personal information from kids and by failing to provide an adequate description of the personal information the game collects and uses.

Nickelodeon and PlayFirst engage in deceptive acts by representing in the privacy disclosure on the Apple App Store that the app's "data collection is in accordance with applicable law, such as COPPA," CDD said in its complaint.

"When the leading children's entertainment [network] thumbs its nose at protecting kids' privacy, it reveals a cynical and callous attitude toward reaping the great financial rewards from marketing to kids by deliberately disregarding the kids online privacy law," Jeffrey Chester, CDD's executive director said by email.

Neither Nickelodeon nor PlayFirst responded immediately to email messages seeking comments on the CDD complaint.

This is the second COPPA complaint CDD has filed with the FTC within a week. Last Tuesday, CDD filed a complaint against popular mobile children's game Mobbles, saying the game collects personal information from children without providing notice to parents.

CDD's two complaints follow an FTC report, released a week ago, saying that many mobile apps aimed at children collect and share personal data without notifying parents, potentially violating COPPA.

"Given last week's FTC mobile app report and this case, it's clear kids' data is at risk online," Chester said. "It is clear that this is not an isolated incident."

The CDD complaint asked the FTC to investigate the apps' data collection and privacy notice practices, including its use of mobile marketing technologies such as unique device identifiers and device tokens, which enable companies to send custom messages to individual children.

SpongeBob Diner Dash is a so-called freemium game, which can be initially downloaded for free, but is designed to encourage users to buy virtual coins that can be spent on items such as shoes that make SpongeBob walk faster, or a frying pan that makes the food cook faster.

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.


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