Parents Using Anti-Bullying Software May Give Up Family Privacy

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School Safety Partners is urging parents signing up for online anti-bullying programs to first know the risks to their family's privacy and the potential for increased personal liability.

Denver-based School Safety Partners is urging parents signing up for online anti-bullying programs to first know the risks to their family's privacy and the potential for increased personal liability.

Many software companies are offering computer programs that enable parents to monitor the online and social media activities of family members as well as their email and text messages. School Safety Partners claims that parents may be unaware of how personal information monitored through these services may be used by the companies.

For example, parents may be required to grant the computer company irrevocable permission to publish any and all family communications monitored through the company's service., owned by Safe Communications in Arizona, is currently requiring the first 100,000 families registering for the company's parental monitoring service to grant such permission even after termination of service.

MouseMail's terms and conditions, posted on its registration page, states in clause 17: "With respect to any Content or User Content that You upload to the Service or transmit through the Service, You hereby grant Safe Communications, Inc. a perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, royalty-free, and non-exclusive license to reproduce, adapt, modify, translate, publish, publically perform, publicly display, and distribute that Content and User Content, the subject of the Content and other data."

Also, parents may feel that the monitoring services give them more control over how to resolve issues that they catch involving their children, when in fact the services may more readily expose the family to serious consequences in civil and criminal court.

SafetyWeb, makers of parental control and social media monitoring software, includes in its privacy policy a clause about turning over private information to the police: "We may disclose any information about you to government or law enforcement officials or private parties as we, in our sole discretion, believe necessary or appropriate to respond to claims, legal process (including subpoenas), to protect the property and rights of SafetyWeb or a third party, the safety of the public or any person, to prevent or stop any illegal, unethical, or legally actionable activity, or to comply with the law."

Such a clause is typical in the industry, notes School Safety Partners in looking over the terms of use and privacy policies of over a dozen software companies competing in the field. In addition, almost all companies reserve the right to change any of their terms or policies at any time without notice.

SocialShield offers to resolve some matters internally, citing a "Cyber Bullying Promise." The company defines cyber bullying as "use of a monitored social network to support deliberate, repeated, and hostile behavior by an individual or group, that is intended to hurt or embarrass a child monitored by Social Shield." In order for the company to intercede, the family must accept privacy setting or other configuration changes recommended by SocialShield.

Some companies offer their services for free. For instance, ePals recently provided a safe, secure and customizable email solution to the New York City Department of Education for the city's approximately 2 million students and parents. The service is designed to improve communication among parents, teachers, and students.

However, such a business model applied to the online Internet safety companies may further compound the privacy issues for users. According to School Safety Partners, most of the companies are small and if they offer their services for free or at a nominal cost their value is primarily based on the size of their membership. Those companies are likely to be targeted for purchase by larger companies interested in acquiring the membership roster in order to quickly expand their own membership. If that happens, the terms of service explain that all private user information may be freely transferred to the new company.

Monitoring a child's online activities, emails, and text messages is a highly complex task, and a potentially overwhelming one for any parent. It requires tight coordination with kids impatient to receive their messages throughout the day, particularly when facing a high volume of messages day-after-day. Before taking on the role of a monitor, School Safety Partners recommends that parents ask themselves the following questions concerning privacy and liability.

1. Does the service company acquire all rights to publish my family's private messages?

2. Does the service company have the right to turn over my family's messages to authorities without my authorization or without first notifying me?

3. What are my obligations to the service company if a matter is to be resolved privately?

4. Will I be adequately notified about any changes to the company's privacy policy?

5. Does my child's school have a policy about confiscating and searching cell phones? If so, how does it conflict with my parental monitoring and controls?

6. What are the legal consequences of preserving or deleting incriminating messages? How should offensive content be preserved or deleted?

7. Am I obligated to report criminal activity or serious risk behavior that the service brings to my attention?

8. In my state, what are the legal consequences of sexting, cyber-bullying, forwarding third-party offensive messages, issuing threats of violence, and other online criminal activities?

9. How long does the service company store my family's messages and online activity logs?

10. Will my family's private information be accessible for investigations centered around other families, or for out-of-state or national investigations?

For more information about bullying and other school safety issues, visit School Safety Partners at

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