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Defense Dept. pulls software over privacy issues

EPIC complaint alleging privacy issues with Echometrix parental control software prompts Defense Department online store to pull the product.


The Department of Defense has pulled a parental control product from its online store serving military families after learning that the company collects childrens' data, according to documents the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) obtained from the government agency.

EPIC has filed a complaint (PDF) with the Federal Trade Commission alleging that Echometrix, maker of FamilySafe parental control software, violates the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act by collecting personal information from children and disclosing it to third parties for market intelligence purposes. Echometrix denies the allegations.

After learning that the Defense Department's Army and Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES) Web site offers the Echometrix product for sale, EPIC filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Defense Department.

The agency complied with the FOIA request. Among the documents provided to EPIC were e-mails between Echometrix and a manager at the AAFES Exchange Online Mall who wanted to know how customer information is collected and whether it is used for marketing purposes.

"During the installation process we fully disclose all of Family Safe's procedures and clearly display an opt-out button for all anonymous aggregate data sharing in our (EULA) End User License Agreement," an Echometrix e-mail explains.

"The collection of AAFES customer information (personal or otherwise) for any other purpose than to provide quality customer service is prohibited" by the agreement retailers sign to sell products through the AAFES site, the online mall manager writes in an e-mail. "Giving our customers the ability to opt out does not address this issue. [It] is prohibited in any case. Because of this, we must remove Sentry Parental Controls from the Exchange Online Mall."

Asked for comment, a Department of Defense spokeswoman said the Echometrix product was available on the online mall from September 25 until October 15. "To the best of our knowledge, no military personnel signed up for the service during the approximately three weeks it was available," Air Force Lt. Col. April D. Cuningham, the public affairs officer, wrote in an e-mail.

Echometrix collects information from children to help parents filter out Web sites, analyzes that information and then sells it to third-parties for market intelligence research, said Kimberly Nguyen, the EPIC lawyer who is handling the case.

The data includes personally identifiable information of children, including IM screen names which can be linked to e-mail addresses, she said.

"The collection of childrens' data raises serious privacy concerns, and even the Defense Department realizes that," Nguyen said in an interview.

Echometrix denied the allegations.

"Echometrix does not collect personally identifiable information or expose the source of any digital content. The company has never and will never collect, distribute or sell personal information as defined by COPPA (the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act)," the company said in a statement.

The FTC did not respond to an e-mail seeking comment.