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,” says 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 to protect underage users.
In January 2008, 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&mdasha difficult endeavor because most students lack driver’s licenses, and few databases list children’s birthdates.
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
A handful of companies have concluded the best way to check students’ information is through schools.
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.
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, says Ron Zayas, the chief executive officer of eGuardian.
Identity.net, established in 2007, is newly partnered with i-SAFE Inc., a Carlsbad, Calif.-based nonprofit group that provided an Internet-safety curriculum to 6.2 million students in public and private schools in 2007.
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, says 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.
A version of this article appeared in the January 21, 2009 edition of Digital Directions as Who Are You?