January 30th, 2001

DOD Scolded Over Kids Web-surfing Data

By George Seffers
Federal Computer Week

In a strongly worded letter to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, an advocacy organization asked the Pentagon to stop doing business with N2H2 Inc., a firm that gathers information on how children spend their time on the World Wide Web.

N2H2 markets its Bess filtering system to schools, parents and employers who want to restrict access to Web sites of dubious content. More than 13 million students in North America viewed more than four billion Internet pages delivered by the Bess filtering system last year alone, according to the company’s Web site.

The Children’s Internet Protection Act requires schools and libraries to use such filtering devices in order to obtain federal funding.

A Jan. 26 Wall Street Journal article reported that N2H2 is being accused of selling the data it acquires on children’s Web-surfing habits to the Pentagon and other organizations.

The article prompted concern from privacy advocates, and Commercial Alert, an organization that aims to protect schoolchildren from advertisers, protested the business transactions in the Jan. 29 letter to Rumsfeld.

“During the Clinton administration, the Defense Department must have grown confused about its mission. It should spy on national security threats, not our own schoolchildren,” Gary Ruskin, the director of Commercial Alert, wrote to Rumsfeld. “Please straighten this out and cut all Defense Department ties to N2H2 immediately.”

Commercial Alert released the letter to the press along with a statement calling N2H2 a “corporate predator that snoops on schoolchildren for monetary gain” and urged parents, school board members, principals and teachers “to rid the schools of N2H2’s child-tracking software.”

Allen Goldblatt, a spokesman for N2H2, was unavailable for comment but said in the Wall Street Journal article: “This is a real non-issue for us.” The data sold to the Pentagon does not include the names of individual students or even schools, limiting the data instead to census districts, Goldblatt told the Wall Street Journal.

Pentagon spokeswoman Susan Hansen said DOD has been unable to confirm whether the department is doing business with N2H2. The Pentagon has no central authority for reporting procurements under $25,000 the N2H2 data reportedly costs $15,000. Furthermore, N2H2 software might have been sold to one of the individual services or agencies or may have come as part of a procurement package, she said.

She added that she does not know whether Rumsfeld has received the letter from Commercial Alert.

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