In the modern age of surveillance, it’s not just Big Brother that you have to look out for, but Big Mother as well.
The proliferation of technology comes with a host of unintended consequences, and one of those consequences playing out in the homes of average American families is parental spying.
Long gone are the days of a parent listening in on the other line of a teenager’s phone conversation. Modern parents are now equipped with GPS monitoring technology, keylogging software, fake Internet identities, and mobile tracking apps. Indeed, parental monitoring technology could turn many well-meaning parents into calculating secret agents.
Here is a look at some of the more devious ways parents keep tabs on their little ones:
Parental Control Software
On June 25th, 2012, McAffee, a security software company, released findings that claimed 70% of teenagers hide some form of Internet activity from their parents. And with the spread of social media services such as Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and more, it’s becoming increasingly difficult for parents to keep track of that activity in an efficient way.
To solve this problem, several companies have now begun selling parental control software.
One such service, offered by the company Mobistealth, advertises itself as “a 21st Century solution for monitoring and protecting children from potential threats.” In a video presented on the company’s website, a woman claims that their software is “an important new tool to help you look out for your VIPs—Very Important People.”
According to Mobistealth, their service allows a parent to invisibly install the software on a computer or cellphone, then logon to the service’s website and view screenshots of activity, gain access to contacts and text messages, and even listen in to phone calls. Other features, such as the ability to log keystrokes, are a throwback to the early days of hacking, now bundled and gift-wrapped for the 21st century parent.
And with the service pricing starting at as little as 50 cents a day, what parent wouldn’t be tempted to gain a glimpse into their children’s secret world?
GPS Tracking Devices
For some parents, monitoring what the kids say or type isn’t enough; they must know where they are as well. After all, teens still occasionally venture away from their keyboards to interact in the real world, and when they do, GPS tracking devices come in handy.
As if ripped from the latest Jason Bourne film, GPS tracking devices can be installed on cars or slipped into backpacks, providing live tracking of one’s kid. Once activated, a parent can logon to a PC or smartphone and gain access to a sleek interface that displays geographical location, time stamps, and even the speed that the device is moving, effectively allowing a parent to see if their teen is driving above the speed limit—while also fulfilling long-hidden desires to play traffic cop.
A report published by CNN on August 3rd, 2012 reported that there are roughly 83 million fake accounts registered on Facebook, amounting to roughly 9% of the service’s entire user base. Although most of these are simply duplicates or throwaway accounts, there are also a number of fake identities which Facebook calls “undesirables.”
Some “undesirable” accounts are used for spamming, but others are used for more malicious purposes. Some are even set up by parents to monitor their kids. For instance, a September, 2012 article published on the UK news site the Daily Mail reported on two parents that used a fake Facebook account to conduct a sting operation on their daughter’s boyfriend—a registered sex offender.
A week after the above report, another story in the Times of India detailed the new trend for schoolteachers to create fake Facebook accounts in order to spy on students, which in itself was reminiscent of an earlier report from 2012 of a US school principal who was busted for keeping tabs on students with a fake Facebook profile.
However, even without creating fake accounts, recent reports have suggested that as many as 50% of parents join social networking sites such as Facebook for the explicit purpose of spying on their kids, prompting the creation of several popular Facebook pages in protest, such as the page MY PARENTS SPY ON MY PROFILE!!!!, which has more than 3,500 likes.
There are also now a slew of apps to help make parents’ jobs easier, such as SocialShield, which will automatically alert parents if their kids use profanity, or Piggyback, which monitors kids’ activity in a number of social media games, such as Whyville. Because who knows what those kids do when the sun sets in Whyville.
Finally, the last and perhaps most controversial of technologies parents use to spy on kids comes in the form of a “Nanny Cam.” Originally developed in order to secretly monitor babysitters for abusive or inappropriate behavior, these cameras in reality have a much wider range of uses due to their discrete design, often concealed as a digital clock, tissue box, speaker set, or even an electrical outlet. And one of these usages could easily be to spy on one’s kid when (s)he’s home alone.
The combined effect of all of these technologies is that the tech-savvy parent can now be endowed with an almost omnipotent level of knowledge of their child’s activity, but it does come at a cost. Spying on kids without their knowledge, or using underhanded tricks such as logging onto their Facebook page, can create issues of trust and unfair power dynamics in a parent-child relationship which can prove damaging later in life.
Therefore, many experts recommend being upfront with kids, so that they can prove their responsibility and parents can earn their trust.
About the Author:
Ben Goldman is a writer, TV producer, and filmmaker from New York City. He’s worked for MTV and Comedy Central, and is currently a writer for Spy Tec, where he reports on topics related to surveillance, security, technology, and culture. Goldman also writes for the Jerusalem Post and the Times of Israel.