Big mother is watching you, kids

Technology now lets you spy on your kids all the time. This is why you shouldn't.

This piece first appeared on newrepublic.com

The other day, my 11-year-old son handed me my iPhone with an accusatory air, as if to say: So this is what you people do behind our backs. While he was looking at stocks, he came across a news item reporting that AT&T, with another company, was about to introduce a snap-around-the-wrist, GPS-tracking, emergency-button-featuring, watch-like thingie for children. It’s called FiLIP, comes in bright colours, and has two-way calling and parent-to-child texting. It allows you to set safe zones, so that you’re alerted when your child enters or leaves a designated area.

A little stunned, I checked it out online. FiLIP, I found, is far from the first such gizmo; this one just has more bells and whistles than most. “The world used to be a little simpler,” went its mom-and-apple-pie pitch. “Kids ran free and returned at dinnertime, and parents didn’t worry so much. But today, parents are under more pressure than ever. ... FiLIP has a simple mission - to help kids be kids again, while giving parents an amazing new window into their children’s lives.” Right. And the Invisible Fence collar on my late lamented cairn terrier let my dog be a dog.

All parents have to let their children off the leash eventually - to let them go out unsupervised, to grant them free-ish range on the internet. That moment always comes before you’re ready for it. For me, it came after a ninth birthday, when we hooked up a Nintendo Wii, then discovered, months later, that it could be used to roam the Internet. Another point was reached toward the end of elementary school, when my children announced that they were the very last kids in their class to get a smartphone. I stalled. Then my son showed me the FiLIP ad, and I discovered a universe of options.

For the iPhone I will soon be buying him, I can get an iPhone Spy Stick, to be plugged into a USB port while he sleeps; it downloads Web histories, emails, and text messages, even the deleted ones. Or I can get Mobile Spy, software that would let me follow, in real time, his online activity and geographical location. Also available are an innocent-looking iPhone Dock Camera that would recharge his battery while surreptitiously recording video in his room, and a voice-activated audio monitor, presumably for the wild parties he’s going to throw when his father and I go out of town.

Had such science-fiction-worthy products somehow become acceptable while I wasn’t watching? Apparently they had. When ZDNet conducted an online debate about parental espionage a few weeks ago, 82 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that parents “should be able to observe the full data feeds of what their children post and receive via Facebook, text, email, and any other application or service used on their devices. It is a parent’s right to 'violate' their child’s notion of 'privacy'.” When a media researcher interviewed 21 parents in three Canadian cities in 2011, only three said that they had faith in their children and that they found such hypervigilance "harmful".

I don’t think of myself as lacking vigilance. I police homework and try to control junk-food intake. I have a password-protected laptop and parental controls activated on the house Mac. I’ve refused to set up the Xbox Live for multiplayer gaming with strangers and turned on the anti-pornograpic SafeSearch feature on Google. But I can only go so far. In a moment of laxness I’m not as ashamed of as I probably should be, I let my son open a Gmail account without demanding his password. I’m declining to investigate whether he may secretly have a Facebook page. His friends do their communicating online, just as mine do, and it makes me queasy to force him out to the edges of the conversation.

As it happens, those concessions may be endangering my children in a way I hadn’t foreseen. I learned that lesson this month, when Sheriff Grady Judd of Polk County, Florida, arrested two girls for the online bullying of a seventh-grader who committed suicide. He charged them with aggravated stalking, but blamed their parents for not "doing what parents should do". And what should they have done? Smash each girl’s cell phone “into a thousand pieces in front of that child,” he said. “Watch what your children do online,” he added.

Those girls were nasty, but comments like that, from a law-enforcement officer, are appalling. I didn’t become a parent to play undercover agent for the state surveillance apparatus. Admittedly, I grew up in a now-unthinkable age of Rousseauian parenting, when a child’s innate curiosity was not to be overly interfered with. I also ran with a crowd that, well, sometimes tried drugs. I survived. But parents whose spy software uncover similar entanglements might be tempted to ship their teenagers off to institutions for troubled youth that could ruin the rest of their lives.

Margaret K. Nelson, a sociologist at Middlebury and author of the thoughtful 2010 book Parenting Out of Control, tells me that I’m reacting like a typical "professional middle-class" parent. I scoff at overt methods of control, preferring instead to hover over my children in a half-trusting, half-doubting, entirely inconsistent way. If I lived in an iffy neighborhood, if I were raising a male African American child, if my husband and I both worked outside the home and could afford only intermittent or no child care—then I might welcome all the help with limit-setting I could get: GPS devices, NetNanny, IAmBigBrother.

But even if class influences the way you react to these technologies, that doesn’t make them OK. You may have no choice but to spy on your children, and yet it can’t be healthy for them to unfurl inside a bell jar. Total transparency fosters a creepy combination of slyness and boundarilessness. An overwatched child may acquire a knack for sneaking around. At the same time, and paradoxically, he may never quite learn not to overshare. He certainly won’t learn not to pry. You have to keep him safe from online predators, but you also have to let him push away and even defy you. Adolescents in particular need to shed their identities as daughters and sons and try on others until they come up with ones authentically their own.

Yes, they will make mistakes, and those embarrassing selfies may take up permanent residence on Facebook and in other corporate or governmental databases. But think of how easily our children accept others’ compilations of their personal data. What if the invasions of privacy that occur within the family are helping to train the next generation to expect the same from larger social entities? I called Kevin Haggerty, a criminologist at the University of Alberta, to learn about “surveillance creep,” the gradual expansion of the zone of scrutiny. We started, he explained, by electronically tracking the dangerous and the vulnerable - inmates, terrorists, Alzheimer’s patients, pets, and our own children - and we’ve wound up putting radio-frequency chips in students’ and employees’ IDs. Haggerty and I didn’t discuss the pernicious activities of the National Security Agency, which evolved over the same period of time, but the scariest endpoint of surveillance creep, it seems to me, will have been reached when the government’s yottabyte farms no longer strike us as sinister or illegal.

And there’s another, possibly even more insidious, consequence of eavesdropping on our offspring. It sends the message that nothing and no one is to be trusted: not them, not us, and especially not the rest of the world. This is no way to live, but it is a way to destroy the bonds of mutual toleration that our children will need to keep our democracy limping along.

This piece first appeared on newrepublic.com

Parents are enabling surveillance culture. (Photo: Getty)
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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle