Companies selling services to protect children and teenagers from sexual predators on the Internet have enlisted the help of schools and teachers to verify students’ personal information. Those companies are also sharing some of the information with Web sites, which can pass it along to businesses for use in targeting advertising to young audiences.
Amid continuing parental and political attention focused on keeping K-12 students safe online, some companies are providing services that aim to ensure adults can’t pose as young people in cyberspace, and that minors can’t claim to be older than they are. But such firms’ use of schools to verify students’ ages and other information worries some educators and observers.
The practice, they say, raises privacy concerns—although it apparently is within the bounds of the main federal law that safeguards students’ educational data—as well as ethical worries about schools’ role in assisting for-profit businesses. In some cases, schools earn money by participating in the process.
“It’s very troubling when schools are involved,” said Scott McLeod, the founding director of the Center for the Advanced Study of Technology Leadership in Education, or CASTLE, at Iowa State University, in Ames. “It’s raising this bogeyman [of Internet predators] so you think you better do this to keep your kid safe, but it cracks open the door to all this other marketing.”
Minors’ online safety has become a hot-button issue. State attorneys general concerned with keeping minors safe from online predators and from exposure to Internet pornography have put pressure on social-networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook to protect underage users.
In January, 49 attorneys general and MySpace struck a deal to form the Internet Safety Technical Task Force, run by Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, to tackle the problem. High on the task force’s list is finding ways to verify the age of children and teenagers online—a difficult endeavor because most students lack driver’s licenses, and few databases list children’s birthdates.
The School’s Role
A handful of companies have concluded the best way to check students’ information is through schools.
Companies that use schools to verify online student profiles may use a business model that follows these steps:
Parent or student provides student’s personal information to company. Registration can cost money or be free.
Company uses a teacher or school to verify the information. School may receive payment for its efforts.
Companies alert partner social-networking Web sites that student users’ information has been verified Company is paid for its service by Web site.
If the user is a minor, social-networking sites put already established protections in place, such as ensuring that the user is not exposed to adult advertising.
Company releases some private information to Web site, often gender, age, and general geographic area. Company is paid for this information by Web site.
Web site uses private information to help advertisers target student users. Web site can charge more for its advertising since it can argue that it will now be more effective in targeting potential customers.
Source: Education Week
Ontario, Calif.-based eGuardian, for instance, is asking schools to verify students’ ages, addresses, and other personal information, and rewarding the schools financially for doing so. Others, such as Identity.net, based in Bellevue, Wash., ask teachers to validate data provided by students.
John Palfrey, a Harvard University law professor and the chairman of the Internet-safety task force, said the group will address those issues in a report due Dec. 31. At a September task force meeting, a handful of companies, including eGuardian, Microsoft, and AssertID, proposed using schools as verifiers of students’ digital data.
“These kinds of programs would have to be very carefully implemented if done through schools,” Mr. Palfrey said.
The service offered by eGuardian starts with a parent, who pays $29 and provides information on his or her child that includes name, age, gender, address, and school. Then the company asks school officials to confirm that information with a simple yes or no. Schools get $11 for each application they verify, said Ron Zayas, the chief executive officer of eGuardian.
Identity.net, established in 2007, is newly partnered with i-SAFE Inc., a San Diego-based nonprofit group that provided an Internet-safety curriculum to 6.2 million students in public and private schools last year.
As part of i-SAFE’s classroom digital-privacy curriculum, students will create profiles through Identity.net and learn when to share less or more personal information in cyberspace, said Teri L. Schroeder, the CEO of i-SAFE. Classroom teachers verify the students’ information for Identity.net, which hopes to get up to 4 million students and 700,000 faculty members in its databases. But with this service, no payment is made to the school for verification.
Legal experts say using schools as verifiers of student data is permissible under the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, which maps out what student information schools must keep confidential.
Thomas Hutton, a senior staff attorney with the Alexandria, Va.-based National School Boards Association, said the type of basic information eGuardian and other companies are seeking to have verified by schools is considered “directory” information and can be disclosed as long as parents have had a chance to opt out of making that information public.
Walking a Fine Line
After such information is verified, Internet-protection companies use the data in a variety of ways.
For example, eGuardian, which has about 750,000 parents enrolled in its program, provides a security service for social-networking sites, vetting the users—particularly their ages—for the sites. For example, eGuardian partners with WoogiWorld, a social-networking virtual world aimed at children.
With Identity.net, users create their own personal “reputation” Web pages, and their information travels with them to the sites they access. The company can also help its users by providing verifying data on those they interact with online, if everyone involved is part of their system.
Again, Identity.net’s service provides security to social-networking sites, which then know the user is already vetted, said Rob Monster, the chairman and CEO of Identity.net.
Both companies also share some basic information about their members with partner sites, allowing them to help advertisers target messages.
Mr. Zayas said eGuardian will provide only a student’s age, gender, and general location. A site will not know which specific 12-year-old boy from California, for example, is on their site at a certain time, but can use that basic information to help advertisers target skateboarding products to him while he’s visiting the site.
Under eGuardian’s business model, the company doesn’t make most of its money from the fee that parents pay. The company is paid by the sites that partner with it for guiding more traffic their way and for the information eGuardian provides on each child, Mr. Zayas said.
But eGuardian does not provide data directly to advertisers, he said. Rather, the company shares the information with the sites, which, in turn, share it with advertisers.
Mr. Monster and Mr. Zayas acknowledge, however, that Web sites using Identity.net and eGuardian will be able to use basic information—sometimes called street information—to help advertisers target marketing efforts, which parents may see as beneficial or detrimental.
“They’re not going to be showing any adult ads to that child, so we end up on the plus side,” Mr. Zayas said. “On the negative side, we are now giving advertisers a better way to target children. That’s one of the fine lines parents have to walk.”
‘This Is Scary’
Josh Golin, the associate director of the Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood, a Boston-based advocacy group, said schools must think hard about their role in such a business venture.
“Schools should not be in the business of helping advertisers be more effective,” Mr. Golin said. “It’s more subtle, but it is the school facilitating commercial access, and it may not even be aware of it.”
In addition, Mr. Golin said, there’s little regulation of private information once the companies receive it.
When a Web site gets the age, gender, and geographic location of a child, the site can then target advertisements of products that that child might be interested in based on the advanced level of knowledge, and the site can charge more for advertising, said Nancy E. Willard, the executive director of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use, based in Eugene, Ore.
“This is as scary as it can be,” she said.
Right now, most of the companies’ partner sites are for young children, where they wouldn’t see adult advertising. But when it comes to marketing, parents should worry more about sites geared toward younger children than MySpace or Facebook, said Montana Miller, a Facebook expert studying Webkinz, a virtual social networking world aimed at children.
“The advertising, the product placement—there’s so many messages about what it means to be a child and a consumer,” she said. “The kind of training [to be a consumer that] Webkinz is doing is more worrisome than them seeing some bit of information that is too mature.”
For schools, it’s also financial attractive to help eGuardian verify student data. For the time it takes to verify each parent-provided application, eGuardian pays schools $11, Mr. Zayas said.
The company has also organized fundraisers, waiving parents’ $29 fee and encouraging them to instead donate a similar amount to their school.
Earlier this year, the PTA at Taft Elementary School in Orange, Calif., held such a fundraiser after being approached by eGuardian, said Susie Johnson, the PTA president at Taft.
Ms. Johnson said eGuardian’s services addressed her fears regarding online sexual predators, but said she was unaware that her child’s basic information could be used by advertisers to get him interested in buying products.
In fact, when the California PTA realized that some students’ personal information could be used by advertisers, the organization abandoned plans to partner with eGuardian, said Kathryn A. Moffat, the state PTA’s vice president for community concerns.
Ms. Willard of the Center for Safe and Responsible Internet Use contends that such companies play on parents’ anxiety without making it clear that some information on students will be shared.
“They are bribing schools with this funding kickback,” she said, “and they are not being clear about promoting targeted advertising.”
But some school experts don’t have a problem with such services. Mel Riddile, the director for high school services for the Reston, Va.-based National Association of Secondary School Principals, said he sees a beneficial partnership between schools and companies like eGuardian when parents initiate the service.
“That’s informed consent,” he said. “A school system taking the initiative to do that with a private vendor would be problematic.”
A version of this article appeared in the November 12, 2008 edition of Education Week as Firms Verify Online IDs Via Schools