A software product sold to protect children from predators, cyber bullying and visiting inappropriate websites is also collecting information about what the kids are saying and is selling that data — in aggregate form — to other companies for marketing purposes. In an interview, Echometrix CEO Jeffrey Greene said that the company doesn’t collect or report the names or any identifying information about the children, “We never ever ever can identify who the kid is who is saying it. In fact we don’t have any information about the individual child.”
Sentry Parental Control Software, according to Greene, is designed to warn parents if a child is engaged in inappropriate online behavior by analyzing a database of 29,000 words including what he calls “weblish,” slang terms like POS (parent over shoulder) that kids use as short cuts in instant messaging and chat rooms. To do this, said Greene, it’s necessary for the company to capture this information so “we can monitor these kids and the conversations they are having and the things they are seeing and all the words that are coming to them and all the words they’re sending out so we can make decisions and identify questionable activities and let mom and dad know about it right now in real time.”
In addition to notifying parents if their kids are doing something questionable, the company also sells summary data based on this information – in the aggregate – to other companies. A press release on its website describes a product called PULSE “that reads digital content from multiple sources across the web, including: instant messages (“IM”), blogs, social environment communities, forums, and chat rooms.” The company says that it delivers the unsolicited raw conversations in real time. It gives marketers immediate, unique information about what teens are saying in their own words.”
Greene says that the service can let companies “in real time, find out what the kids are saying about your product and all your competitors’ products … I can’t tell you who said it, I can only just tell you that a lot of kids said it.”
Greene said that the company does provide a disclosure to parents as well as a way for parents to opt out, but the information in its end-user license agreement (EULA) is written in the typical legalese and is a bit contradictory. In one section it says “SearchHelp (recently renamed Echometrix) does not read or disclose private communications except to comply with a valid legal process such as a search warrant, to protect the company’s rights and property” but in another it says “We have a parent’s permission to share the information if the user is a child under age 13. Parents have the option of allowing SearchHelp to collect and use their child’s information without consenting to SearchHelp sharing of this information with people and companies who may use this information for their own purposes.”
At my request, the company provided a link to a web page where parents can “opt out of collection process.”
David Perry of TrendMicro, which includes parental control tools in some of its security products, said he isn’t aware of any other parental control products that captures this type of information. “This is a severe case of what we used to call spyware,” he said. Perry worries that even though the software may not collect the names of the children, “those names could be included in some of the chat messages.”
Taking Greene at his word, and assuming that the company carefullly avoids sending out identifiable information, I still can’t shake the creepy feeling that I get about any product that collects any information from children, especially in the name of child protection.