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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What I learnt when my wife and I went to Brexit: the Musical

This week in the media, from laughing as the world order crumbles to what Tristram Hunt got wrong – and Leicester’s big fall.

As my wife and I watched Brexit: the Musical, performed in a tiny theatre above a pub in London’s Little Venice, I thought of the American novelist Lionel Shriver’s comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration: “A sense of humour is going to get us through better than indignation.” It is an entertaining, engaging and amusing show, which makes the point that none of the main actors in the Brexit drama – whether supporters of Leave or Remain – achieved quite what they had intended. The biggest laugh went to the actor playing Boris Johnson (James Sanderson), the wannabe Tory leader who blew his chance. The mere appearance of an overweight man of dishevelled appearance with a mop of blond hair is enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The lesson we should take from Brexit and from Trump’s election is that politicians of all shades, including those who claim to be non-political insurgents, have zero control of events, whether we are talking about immigration, economic growth or the Middle East. We need to tweak Yeats’s lines: the best may lack all conviction but the worst are full not so much of passionate intensity – who knows what Trump or Johnson really believe? – as bumbling incompetence. The sun will still rise in the morning (as
Barack Obama observed when Trump’s win became evident), and multi­national capital will still rule the world. Meanwhile, we may as well enjoy the show.

 

Danger of Donald

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t deny the risks of having incompetents in charge. The biggest concerns Trump’s geopolitical strategy, or rather his lack of one. Great power relations since 1945 have been based on mutual understanding of what each country wants to achieve, of its red lines and national ambitions. The scariest moments come when one leader miscalculates how another will react. Of all figures in recent history, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with his flamboyant manner and erratic temperament, was probably the most similar to Trump. In 1962, he thought President Kennedy, inexperienced and idealistic, would tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was wrong and the world only narrowly avoided nuclear war.

How would Trump respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic states? Will he recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Will he scrap Obama’s deal with Iran and support a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear ambitions? Nobody knows, probably not even Trump. He seems to think that keeping your options open and your adversaries guessing leads to “great deals”. That may work in business, in which the worst that can happen is that one of your companies goes bankrupt – an outcome of which Americans take a relaxed view. In international relations, the stakes are higher.

 

Right job, wrong time

I rather like Tristram Hunt, who started contributing to the New Statesman during my editorship. He may be the son of a life peer and a protégé of Peter Mandelson, but he is an all-too-rare example of a politician with a hinterland, having written a biography of Engels and a study of the English Civil War and presented successful TV documentaries. In a parallel universe, he could have made an inspirational Labour leader,
a more thoughtful and trustworthy version of Tony Blair.

No doubt, having resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, he will make a success of his new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If nothing else, he will learn a little about the arts of management and leadership. But isn’t this the wrong way round? Wouldn’t it be better if people first ran museums or other cultural and public institutions and then carried such experience into parliament and government?

 

Pointless palace

When the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834, thousands gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thomas Carlyle noted that the crowd “whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it” and that “a man sorry I did not anywhere see”.

Now, with MPs reportedly refusing to move out to allow vital renovation work from 2023, we can expect a repeat performance. Given the unpopularity of politicians, public enthusiasm may be even greater than it was two centuries ago. Yet what is going through MPs’ minds is anyone’s guess. Since Theresa May refuses them a vote on Brexit, prefers the Foreign Office’s Lancaster House as the location to deliver her most important speech to date and intends to amend or replace Brussels-originated laws with ministerial orders under “Henry VIII powers”, perhaps they have concluded that there’s no longer much point to the place.

 

As good as it gets

What a difference a year makes. In January 2016, supporters of Leicester City, my home-town team, were beginning to contemplate the unthinkable: that they could win football’s Premier League. Now, five places off the bottom, they contemplate the equally unthinkable idea of relegation.

With the exception of one player, N’Golo Kanté (now at Chelsea), the team is identical to last season’s. So how can this be? The sophisticated, mathematical answer is “regression to the mean”. In a league where money, wages and performance are usually linked rigidly, a team that does much better than you’d predict one season is likely to do much worse the next. I’d suggest something else, though. For those who won last season’s title against such overwhelming odds, life can never be as good again. Anything short of winning the Champions League (in which Leicester have so far flourished) would seem an anti­climax. In the same way, the England cricket team that won the Ashes in 2005 – after the Australians had dominated for 16 years – fell apart almost as soon as its Trafalgar Square parade was over. Beating other international teams wouldn’t have delivered the same adrenalin surge.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era