This near miss sickens me.
I had a futuristic dream the other night that my son started getting catalogues that match his preferences for music, books, and videos. Perhaps the dream was the result of the time when he was 12 months old and the hospital sold his information to toy marketers who barraged us with toy catalogues. In that case it was simply an acknowledgement that a child had been born who lived at a certain address and was entering the age when toy catalogues would intrigue him. Some of those catalogues continue to come, filled with age-appropriate toys.
This time, the direct marketing information came from his school. You see, he participated in several Web-based activities that asked him for questions about what kind of books, music, and other learning tools he liked or excelled in. Based on what he did in these activities, the companies developed a profile of him. And marketing commenced right away, mostly in the form of highly targeted catalogues printed to entice him to have a tantrum if his parents didn’t buy his favorite video right away.
Of course, in the dream, our child is not the only one being profiled. All kids are. Over time, the database become quite robust for each child at school. It knows every like and dislike, every success, every failure, the rough IQ, Myers-Briggs profile, temperament and behavior issues, etc. for every kid that goes to schools where the material is used. The database also holds the real-world identity of each child, complete with addresses, phone numbers, and a similar demographic profile of all the children’s parents.
Fortunately, the dream did not last long. I sat straight up in bed and had a good long think about whether I was paranoid or, if not, where this fantasy came from. Then it hit me. We ran a story a while back about a company that makes Web filtering software for schools. According to my memory of the story, the company had made a deal to sell click-stream data from school kids to a marketing firm, which would then analyze the data and resell it to organizations who would in turn develop campaigns that target kids.
At first I dismissed the dream and its contents, went back to sleep, and forgot about it for a few weeks. But today another story on our site reminded me of all those details my memory had glossed over. The story tells of how N2H2 Inc., an Internet content-filtering company, had planned to sell aggregated data on the Web surfing habits of school kids to marketing firm Roper Starch Worldwide. Based on the deal, Roper Starch already had clients lined up drooling over the data, including the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD).
And this is where the story gets interesting. If the clients had not themselves been government agencies, subject to the Freedom of Information Act, the plan would likely have gone ahead as scheduled. But because it was sold to the DoD, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) found out about the deal, and ordered the requisite documents from the DoD. EPIC made a public stink, which resonated with irate parents all over the Web, and the plan was scuttled.
Suffice it to say H2H2 had its tail squarely between its legs when Alan Goldblatt, its director of corporate communications, said, “Our business is built upon protecting kids online, and there is no way we ever, or would have ever jeopardized their privacy.” I think we have enough documented evidence that makes this statement absurd.
This incident only serves as a reminder that these companies are too desperate to care whether their actions are ethical. And it reinforces the need for groups like EPIC to serve as watchdogs for our privacy when government leaders are reluctant to encroach on commercial interests.
James Mathewson is editorial director of ComputerUser.com and ComputerUser magazine.