Privacy advocates found another reason to oppose the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) when the Wall Street Journal reported Jan. 26 that the Defense Department had purchased information about students’ web-surfing habits from filtering company N2H2 Inc. of Seattle.

The news prompted the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) to ask the Defense Department why it wanted this information. The group filed a Freedom of Information request asking for all documentation related to the transaction. “We wanted to know essentially what interest the Department of Defense has in this data on children and [what it has to do with] the defense of the country,” said Chris Hoofnagle, a staff attorney for EPIC. Hoofnagle said he also filed a Freedom of Information request with Florida’s Hillsborough County School District to see what N2H2 tells customers about its business practices.

Other privacy groups reportedly contacted Pentagon officials and asked them to not use information collected about children for marketing purposes.

EPIC and other privacy advocates are concerned that internet filtering companies might profit from collecting and selling data about which web sites students are visiting at school. Their concern is even greater because CIPA would give public schools that receive federal funding no choice but to use filters.

N2H2’s filtering system, Bess, is widely used by the K-12 community, and eSchool News readers recently voted it as the best internet filter available. Bess keeps a log of all web site addressess that users visit, without recording any identifying information about users.

Because the logs provide useful insight into which web sites are visited the most for educational purposes, N2H2 has been developing ways to share and profit from the information, said Jim O’Halloran, N2H2’s director of product marketing.

N2H2 started a business venture with marketing firm Roper Starch Worldwide, which sells the data to interested companies—such as the Defense Department—as a monthly report on where children spend their time online at school. A Defense Department spokesman told the publication Inside the Pentagon that the department signed a contract with Roper Starch to help target the military’s recruiting efforts, since the army recently launched a new recruiting campaign.

“We don’t make the decision of who the aggregate information goes to. That is a Roper Starch determination,” O’Halloran said. “I should add that the nature of this information—being highly aggregated and anonymous—should not cause anyone any concern at all.”

O’Halloran said the information N2H2 collects and sells does not reveal the identity of any particular users, because Bess doesn’t require users to sign in with a username or password. “There is no risk to any individual and no risk to any group. You could leave this information lying on any street corner, and it would cause no harm,” he said.

EPIC’s Hoofnagle said his group is wary of N2H2’s assertions. “We’ve heard arguments like that in the past,” he said. “We’ve also seen companies not fulfilling promises.”

N2H2 is planning to give its information on student web use to its education customers at no charge, O’Halloran said, so they can see how the internet is being used in schools around the country and thereby come to use the internet more effectively in their own schools.

In addition, company officials met with staff members from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to brief them about N2H2’s information-collection methods.

“We received a clean bill of health,” O’Halloran said of the company’s meeting with the FTC.

Toby Levine, a spokeswoman for the FTC, told eSchool News the meeting between the agency and the company was informal and did not include any type of evaluation of N2H2.

N2H2 also met with staff members of Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga., since Cleland has significant concerns about data collection practices on the internet.

Patricia Murphy, Cleland’s press secretary, said the meeting with N2H2 “left our staff with some concerns—you could even say some serious concerns.”

Murphy said the two legislative assistants who met with N2H2 didn’t feel the company was willing to commit to a policy in which it would inform clients of its business practices openly.

“N2H2 [officials] said they were re-evaluating their methods, but they didn’t make any promises about making full disclosure of their practices to schools,” she said. “I think if they have full disclosure to the users of the software, we would have [fewer] concerns.”

O’Halloran said the company does, indeed, inform its customers of the software’s capabilites. “There’s a general awareness of N2H2’s ability to observe aggregate information,” he said.

N2H2 establishes its access to the internet use logs in its agreement with customers, O’Halloran said. “Customers who might be included in our anonymous, aggregated national sample can request at any time to be removed from the sample, but we have not historically provided that clause in the agreement itself,” he said. “We will now reconsider that policy.”

In addition, N2H2 has been talking about—and distributing—this information for more than a year, O’Halloran said, including presentations at educational technology conferences and monthly dispatches of information from the internet use logs to the education press for dissemination to educators. “For people to say that N2H2 has concealed its practice is simply untrue,” he said.

Nevertheless, privacy advocates worry that there are no rules requiring internet filtering companies to disclose their business practices fully, especially since CIPA would require schools to use their products.

“We want to see broader protections for children,” Hoofnagle said. “There’s not adequate assurance that [information collected by filtering companies] will remain anonymous.”

Links:

N2H2 Inc.
http://www.n2h2.com

Roper Starch
http://www.roper.com

Federal Trade Commission
http://www.ftc.gov

Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga.
http://www.senate.gov/~cleland

Electronic Privacy Information Center
http://www.epic.org