Software Firm Faces Scrutiny

Parents who install a leading brand of software to monitor their kids’ online activities may be unwittingly allowing the company to read their children’s chat messages, and sell the marketing data gathered.

Software sold under the Sentry and FamilySafe brands can read private chats conducted through Yahoo, MSN, AOL and other services, and send back data on what kids are saying about such things as movies, music or video games.

The information is then offered to businesses seeking ways to tailor their marketing messages to kids. “This scares me more than anything I have seen using monitoring technology,” said Parry Aftab, a child-safety advocate. “You don’t put children’s personal information at risk.”

The company that sells the software insists it is not putting kids’ information at risk, since the program does not record children’s names or addresses. But the software knows how old the kids are because parents customize its features to be more or less permissive, depending on age.

Five other makers of parental-control software contacted by The Associated Press, including McAfee and Symantec, said they do not sell chat data to advertisers. The software brands in question are developed by EchoMetrix, based in Syosset, N.Y.

In June, EchoMetrix unveiled a separate data-mining service called Pulse that taps into the data gathered by Sentry software to give businesses a glimpse of youth chatter online. While other services read publicly available teen chatter, Pulse also can read private chats. It gathers information from instant messages, blogs, social networking sites, forums and chat rooms.

EchoMetrix Chief Eexecutive Officer Jeff Greene said the company complies with U.S. privacy laws and does not collect any identifiable information. What Pulse will reveal is how the youthful chatters feel about upcoming movies, computer games or clothing trends. Such information can help advertisers craft their marketing messages as buzz builds about a product.

Parents who don’t want the company to share their child’s information to businesses can check a box to opt out. That option can be found only by visiting the company’s Web site, accessible through a control panel that appears after the program has been installed.

It was not in the agreement contained in the Sentry Total Home Protection program The Associated Press downloaded and installed Friday. According to the agreement, the software passes along data to “trusted partners.” Confidentiality agreements prohibit those clients from sharing the information with others.

By DEBORAH YAO, Associated Press

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