Cybersnooping: How far is too far?

At this very moment, my emotional state is a combination of completely terrified mixed with a whole lot of gratitude that I am no longer an adolescent. All with thanks to a familiar lil pup from Chicago– Scruff McGruff.

I came across a computer program this week by the team behind the crime-preventin McGruff. Its called the McGruff SafeGuard to help parents “take a bite out of Internet danger”. According to the web site, the product is essentially my 13 year old self’s worst nightmare:

“McGruff SafeGuard goes way beyond typical website blocking services. Those products try to control WHERE your kids can go on the Internet. We help you see and understand exactly WHAT your kids are doing on the Internet. And WHO they are doing it with!”

Pardon my language, but HOLY CRAP.

This is taking internet safety to a whole new [read: absolutely terrifying] level.

I have so many issues with this. By having a program that goes “way beyond” other programs to monitor kid’s internet usage is personally far too unethical for me to understand. For lack of better words, it is completely unfair for children. Reading a particular FAQs on the site was also deeply concerning to me:

Q: What if I don’t want my child to know that SafeGuard is installed on his or her PC?

A: When you install SafeGuard, an icon will appear on the desktop you are monitoring. You can delete this icon and SafeGuard continue to work. It does not appear in the Windows system tray, Windows Programs or show in the Windows Task Manager list. Your child should not know that this software is installed.

The idea of monitoring your child with the child completely unaware could have some serious implications. This is a serious invasion of privacy! Perhaps I can’t grasp the need for this service because I am not a parent. BUT I will say that this kind of supervision could easily create a barrier between you and your child. Informing your child of the monitoring is one thing, but intentionally hiding that fact? There are so many things wrong with that.

Oh mannnn I feel like there is so much to say on this topic. Thoughts?

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One Response to “Cybersnooping: How far is too far?”

  1. Andrew Kaizer says:

    Being a Computer Scientist, I will approach the problem from a Cyberethics standpoint.

    Probably the most troublesome aspect of this is how legal it is to do. Surprisingly to most, we do not have any actual right to privacy that is not a side effect of some other law, and when it comes to children the state usually yields to the parents. So from a strictly legal point of view, this would seem like a closed case*.

    Now the issue of ethics on the other hand taint this pretty strongly. From a computer sciences perspective, this software might as well be unwanted malicious software that is rooted deep in your machine (strike 1). Any software that actively attempts to evade or hide itself from user detection — even if that user is a kid — should be regarded as having poor motives.

    The issue from a trust perspective seems pretty damning as well (strike 2). Even the slightest indication of mistrust in a relationship can undermine its ability to function, and when the bond is between parent and child the consequences can be unintended and critically damaging.

    Finally, the classical problem of safety/security versus freedom must be weighed. I think it is safe to say that a wiser man than I once spoke the truth: “Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” (Benjamin Franklin, 1759).

    I fall against the legal standing here, as I am sure many do. Technology is an incredibly stubborn thing to write laws for due to its constantly changing nature. Even more troublesome is that the Supreme Court of the United States has a pretty consistent record for the rights of parents to do as they want with their children, within existing legal bounds, and are not likely to reverse 200 years of precedence in short order. Legal philosophy is like a giant ship, steady in its course and deliberate in its change; technology is like a jet ski plotting its meandering course with sharp turns and risky about faces.

    *Just to see how nuanced legal philosophy is, here is our two sources for the legal theory of privacy. Warren and Brandeis (1890, that is right 1890) and Judith Thomson (1975)

    Both of these papers are the benchmarks that the two privacy camps tend to align with on legal issues and both make great points!

    Keep up the interesting research!

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