Developer temporarily pulls kids app accused of privacy violations

Complaint alleges that Mobbles, a game in which children collect and care for virtual pets, violated federal law by collecting personal information of children under 13 without parental consent.

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Mobble's Web site. Screenshot by Steven Musil/CNET

The developer of a mobile app for children temporarily pulled the free game from the Apple App Store and Google Android Play store today after learning it was the subject of a complaint filed with the Federal Trade Commission.

Mobbles, a geolocation game in which children collect and care for virtual pets, collected personal information such as e-mail addresses without parental consent, according to a complaint filed yesterday by the Center for Digital Democracy. The federal Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) requires Web site operators to obtain verifiable parental consent before collecting personal information from children younger than 13.

The app developer said it had not received any official notice from the FTC regarding the complaint:

We have been informed by various members of the media that Mobbles has been or will be identified in a filing with the FTC regarding the manner in which it collects, stores, and uses consumer information. At this point, however, we have not received any official notice or service of any such filing. Thus it is impossible for us to respond in any intelligent way to allegations that we have neither seen nor analyzed in full. Assuming the media is reporting accurate information, we will review any such allegations with our legal counsel and will be better able to respond.

According to the complaint, the app did not link to a privacy policy regarding data collection practices, nor did the Mobbles Web site post a privacy policy. But later today, the app returned to the Android app store (but not Apple's), and a privacy policy labeled "updated" had appeared at the top left of the Mobbles Web site.

The new privacy policy states that the app collects personal information such as user names, e-mail addresses, and Facebook IDs. The policy also states that location information is not kept and that information is not sold to third parties.

However, the policy, which is riddled with typos, asserts that the game is not intended for play by children under 13.

"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 policy states. "By using the Games, you represent and warrant that you are at leasth [sic] thirteen years old."

The company later said its intention was to comply with the law.

"We understand the CDD and FTC's privacy concerns and we're more than willing to do everything in our power to address the issue if Mobbles is not fully compliant," Mobbles cofounder Alex Curtelin said in a statement. "We have updated the privacy policy found on our website. We apologize for not making it clear enough in the first place."

The complaint emerged on the same day the FTC released a report critical of the state of children's privacy when it comes to mobile apps, complaining that "despite many high-visibility efforts to increase transparency in the mobile marketplace, little or no progress has been made."

Updated 12/12 at 9:25 a.m. PT with Mobbles statement.