What price your child’s safety?

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This is often thorny question for parents to consider. How intrusive should my monitoring of my children’s internet activity be? How can I be sure that I am helping them to stay safe online and still maintain their sense of independence and, perhaps more importantly, the privacy which is so important to kids as they are growing up? Would you consider the sale of their private conversations a fair price?

 

There are several different levels that we as parents can consider in attempting to protect our children online; URL filtering by category can stop your children from visiting unwanted content either accidentally or deliberately, data protection functionality can stop them from giving away sensitive or inappropriate information online (I’m thinking of things like addresses, telephone numbers, or even their parents credit card numbers).

 

It seems also that some parents are willing to install software that allows them to do everything from logging the full content of all instant messaging conversations to remotely viewing their child’s computer activity with real time video.

 

The software that I am referring to in this instance is called Sentry Parental Controls from a company that was until recently called SearchHelp Inc. It gives parents the ability to closely monitor how their children are using their computers, who they are interacting with and how. There is of course a much wider ethical debate around whether or not it is acceptable to do the online equivalent of reading your own children’s diaries, or tapping into their telephone calls, but that is perhaps for another day.

 

Sentry Parental Controls has been in the news over the last couple of days for the way in which it uses data collected by the monitoring software to partly fuel a second service offered under the new company name, ECHOMETRIX, strapline – “When kids talk, we listen”

 

In a story first published on ZDNet in German, Larry Magid reports that the data collected by Sentry Parental Controls is in part sold on to subcribers through a new service called Pulse.

 

Pulse was launched by the rebranded ECHOMETRIX at the end of June this year and promises to offer “a real-time digital content platform that reveals the truth driving the $190 Billion teen market.” They even go on to boast “The unmatched ability to get inside privileged IM chats positions PULSE as a far more accurate predictor of the teen mindset.

 

Isn’t that exactly the point though, that the content of these chats is *privileged*? Doesn’t it follow that privileged information is not to be exploited for commercial gain? 

 

In the German language article Mr Greene, the CEO of ECHOMETRIX explains that the data that is collected and mined by Pulse is anonymised and that no individual user’s identity is at risk of being exposed. In the same article, Trend Micro’s own David Perry is quoted as saying “This is a serious case of what we would call spyware” and I would have to agree with him. It is also relevant to consider, even if chat data is anonymised is it also sanitised? Could the chat itself contain personally identifiable information? A phrase that is used repeatedly on the ECHOMETRIX site is “unfiltered user generated content” they explain that their product “delivers the unsolicited raw conversations in real time

 

So I ask you, what price the online safety of your child? If you as a parent are prepared to make the moral leap necessary to monitor your children’s communications word for word, are you also prepared to knowingly share those communications with a stranger? Are you prepared for them to be used to turn a profit?

 

According to Jeffrey Greene, CEO, “The name change to ECHOMETRIX better reflects what the company does — we echo what kids are saying and we measure it.”

 

I would suggest that if you want to protect your family online, you contact a reputable security software vendor. If you need “opinion mining and sentiment analysis applications for user-generated digital social media content” then ECHOMETRIX might be better suited to help you out…

 

If you do have concerns about the safety of your children while online you will find a lot of helpful information and free tools, in Trend Micro’s Internet Safety Centre (just try not to click on the video of me!).

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