January 29th, 2001
The Army Is Watching Your Kid
By Jeffrey Benner
The Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) has asked the Department of
Defense to explain why it is monitoring the Web surfing habits of children using
the Internet at school.
An article in Friday’s Wall Street Journal prompted EPIC’s request, filed under
the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), for all documents related to the department’s
purchase of reports on student’s surfing habits from a company called N2H2.
The Journal reported that N2H2 (NTWO), the leading provider of Web-filtering
services to U.S. K-12 schools, is telling the department which websites students
visit most while at school.
"We’re very interested in knowing why the Department of Defense would
want this kind of information," EPIC Executive Director Marc Rotenberg
Other privacy advocates and foes of commercialization in schools expressed
similar interest and concern. Gary Ruskin, director of Commercial Alert—a
nonprofit group opposed to advertising and marketing excesses—called N2H2
a "corporate predator" in a statement issued on Monday. He also sent
a letter to new Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld asking the department to
stop purchasing Web traffic information from N2H2.
N2H2 filters Internet content for schools that purchase its software, called
Bess. According to the International Data Corporation, Bess is the most popular
Web filter with schools, with about 20 percent of the market. N2H2 says it filters
content for about 15 million students nationwide.
But the company is not profitable, and it recently began selling the information
collected by its filtering servers. N2H2 uses Web logs to determine the top
1,000 websites students visit each month and the length of the average visit
to each site. Surfing habits are then divided according to age group, nine geographic
regions and population density. For example, a subscriber to the database could
learn where junior high kids in the rural areas of the Northeast click most.
This aggregate information is passed along to Roper Starch Worldwide, which
packages and markets it as a product called Class Clicks.
While the notion of the military spying on kids makes privacy advocates shudder,
N2H2 and Roper Starch say the concerns are unfounded.
"The fear that we’re selling names or something like that is a lot of
media hype," said Bob Pares, who markets Class Clicks for Roper. "We
don’t have that information. The concerns that people have are a bit overdone."
He also finds the interest of the Defense Department—one of only two customers
that have purchased Class Clicks so far—less mysterious and ominous than
"Obviously, it’s for recruitment," he said. "The prime thing
they want to do is communicate opportunities to people coming out of high school.
The military is interested in knowing how to talk to teenagers in new media
Ruskin, who researches advertising in schools, notes that the military is a
top advertiser on the closed circuit television service Channel One. The armed
services’ difficulty meeting recruitment quotas over the past several years
has been well publicized.
The department couldn’t confirm or deny if it had purchased the Class Clicks
product. The Army’s new ad agency, Leo Burnett—hired to come up with a replacement
for the retired "Be All You Can Be" campaign—hadn’t heard of it
Assuming Pares is right—the military is only trying to figure out where
to place banner ads—where’s the harm?
"In general, aggregate information doesn’t raise privacy concerns. If
it’s not associated with an individual, or a group of less than about 25, it’s
not a privacy issue," said Jason Catlett, president of privacy advocate
Pares said the information in Class Clicks does not approach that degree of
specificity. The Bess software does not require students to log on with a user
name, and cannot provide any information on individual users.
"We’re not even sure if these are boys or girls," he said.
But even if Class Clicks does not violate students’ right to privacy, the precedent
that N2H2 has set by choosing to sell information collected during filtering
deeply concerns those who want to stop commercialism from penetrating schools
via the Web.
The passage of the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA) last December
has raised the stakes in that fight significantly. The new legislation requires
schools and libraries that receive federal funding for computers to use filters
like N2H2’s Bess.
The crux of the concern is that, if filtering companies are allowed to sell
their data, children will be unable to avoid monitoring by corporations who
want to sell them stuff, or government agencies looking for a few good men.
Kids have to go school, schools have to have filters and filtering companies
can sell the information.
EPIC and the ACLU have promised to challenge the legislation as an unconstitutional
impediment to free speech. EPIC’s Rotenberg thinks N2H2’s decision to sell the
information on students collected via soon-to-be mandatory filters could be
used as additional ammunition in their case.
"We might argue that it’s another reason mandatory filtering imposes an
unconstitutional privacy burden on school children," Rotenberg said.
N2H2 claims that most of the interest in Class Clicks is coming from educational
content providers who want to improve their products. But they also say that
they don’t have any moral qualms about selling to commercial interests.
"We wouldn’t have a problem selling a report to Pepsi," a company