How much privacy should children have from their own parents?

Posted on Jan 26, 2019 by Glyn Moody
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Back in August last year, Danica Sergison gave good advice here on Privacy News Online about how to help children think critically about privacy. That’s crucial, since the world they will inhabit as adults will be pervasively digital, which means that privacy choices will be key issues for all of their lives. The blog post rightly emphasized the importance of giving children a sense of agency – the ability to choose for themselves how personal information of all kinds is shared. The focus of that article was on protecting young people from the threats that might come from outside the family. But there’s a disturbing trend in some quarters, of parents actively undermining the privacy of their own children, even if it’s often done with the best intentions.

A common example is the use of GPS trackers for teenage drivers. One system is permanently installed on vehicles using the OBD-II port, previously discussed on Privacy News Online in the context of how connected vehicles threaten privacy. Here are some real-world applications of GPS tracking technology:

Speed thresholds can be set online, as well as zone or area alerts. Anytime your vehicle exceeds your set speed threshold, you will get a SMS text message to your cell phone, as well as an email, notifying you of the speed violation. Moreover, when your vehicle exits or enters a specified geographical zone, you can configure the system to also, send you a cell phone or email alert.

The intentions are laudable: to stop young people from driving recklessly and injuring or even killing themselves, but the invasion of privacy is obvious. Similarly, GPS trackers for children are designed to stop them getting lost or – more seriously, but far less likely – being abducted. Such GPS trackers are now lightweight and small, and can thus easily be placed in a pocket or backpack. That makes them ideal for keeping an eye on smaller children, but also means that older children can easily remove them if they wish to avoid parental tracking for whatever reason.

The same problem affects the use of children-tracking apps installed on their smartphones. Although these are certainly useful for parents who want to know where their children are when away from home, it is easy to circumvent their surveillance by uninstalling the app, or simply ceasing to carry the phone for a while.

For parents who really want to ensure that their children can be located at all times, a new generation of GPS tracking devices are placed on young people using hard-to-remove ankle bracelets. An article in the Miami Herald reported that the local company Tampa Bay Monitoring has installed 50 GPS ankle bracelets in the last three years:

Beyond tracking teens’ whereabouts, the bracelets can buzz and emit a piercing siren noise. They offer two-way communication, so Tampa Bay Monitoring staff can speak directly to teens and listen to what the teen says in response, according to the company.

Tampa Bay Monitoring offers two models designed to be worn on the ankle. The buddi Insight is “lightweight, accurate, waterproof, and provides instant alerts and evidence in the event of tampering, removal, loss of communication and entering or leaving set geographic zones.” The ReliAlert XC for High Risk Teens “is tamper proof and even if your teenager tries to take it off, you will be alerted immediately. An optional, hardened steel encased security cuff for high-risk teens.”

Again, the intent of parents may be for the best, but placing non-removable ankle bracelets on their children seems to be an extreme approach. The same could be said about surveillance being carried out by parents and schools in China. One school has deployed headbands that read brain signals. Lights on the front of the units use different colors to show the level of concentration, allowing teachers to monitor how hard their students are working at every moment. The devices are made by the US company Brainco:

BrainCo’s FocusEDU provides the world’s first technology that can quantify real-time student engagement in the classroom. With BrainCo’s brainwave-detecting headbands and software platform, educators can track student engagement and class attention levels as they’re happening. The FocusEDU platform provides insight into individual student and full classroom engagement.

Focus EDU provides in-class, contextually relevant, and ongoing feedback enabling teachers to make sustained improvements in their teaching skills. Meanwhile, students develop ownership of their learning experience. Students and parents can track learning improvements, while administrators can identify the most engaging activities and methods to help spread best practices.

Another school in China is using “intelligent uniforms”, which come with built-in tracking chips rugged enough to withstand hundreds of ordinary washing cycles. As the Chinese Web site Global Times reports:

If students wear the uniforms, the school authorities receive recorded accurate timing of their entry and exit and automatically send the data to parents and teachers, said Lin Zongwu, principal of No. 11 School of Renhuai in Guizhou Province.

More than 800 students in his school have been wearing the intelligent uniforms since the fall of 2016.

According to Guizhou Guanyu Technology Company that provides the technology behind the “intelligent uniforms,” an automatic voice alarm activates if students wearing intelligent uniforms walk out of school without permission.

Through the help of the facial recognition equipment installed on the doors of schools, if students swap their uniforms, the alarm also rings.

The use of facial recognition systems in conjunction with the “intelligent uniforms” is significant. It is a reminder that we are entering a world of multiple and pervasive surveillance systems. As a result, parents will soon be able to dip into on a torrent of personal information revealing the whereabouts and activities of their children. The ubiquity of these systems may well mean that it is not necessary to strap an awkward physical system to the child’s leg. The surveillance will be just as non-removable as an ankle bracelet because it will not depend upon a single source of data, and can therefore never be completely avoided.

The same will apply to adults too, of course, who will find themselves subject to constant surveillance by companies and cities. The key difference when it comes to children, though, is that it is their own parents and guardians who are carrying out the monitoring. The question is: given that it is increasingly difficult to preserve privacy in the modern world, does that make parents spying on their own children better or worse?

Featured image by Tampa Bay Monitoring.

About Glyn Moody

Glyn Moody is a freelance journalist who writes and speaks about privacy, surveillance, digital rights, open source, copyright, patents and general policy issues involving digital technology. He started covering the business use of the Internet in 1994, and wrote the first mainstream feature about Linux, which appeared in Wired in August 1997. His book, "Rebel Code," is the first and only detailed history of the rise of open source, while his subsequent work, "The Digital Code of Life," explores bioinformatics - the intersection of computing with genomics.

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