Surveilance Raised to the Second Power

The following article appear about a week ago over the AP business wire. It turns out that parents who “spy” on their children may be unwittingly helping corporations to spy on them too. It’s very valuable to folks in marketing to know what kids are talking about. If you believe the companies that make/sell the child surveillance software to parents, the information being collected is not associated with the kids’ names but it is tagged with information about the kid (ironically, often entered by the parent when s/he sets the software up in the first place).

One easy take-away is the idea that norms about spying on kids are highly dependent on who is doing the spying and why. If you have legal custody of the kid and you are trying to protect her from predators, spy away. If you are a commercial entity who wants to listen in to the kids’ chats, you’re crossing the line.

Bunch of sociology of information questions emerge in what looks in the article to be real mishmosh of thinking about this phenomenon. We see talk of “targeting children” (by marketers), “putting the children’s information at risk” (not really sure what that means), legal issues of collecting data from kids and having parents’ permission implied if software is installed, and so on. What doesn’t get thematized is that this is yet another example of trading a service for your information. In pure economic terms it can be written off as an exchange, that, if people do it, must be identifying an equivalence in value (as in, “it’s worth it to me to play this game at the cost of the provider can observe what kind of music I like”). In fact, though, I suspect that these dimensions of value are more orthogonal than is being pretended. It works because of multiple slights of hand — one isn’t really sure what information one is giving up or what is happening to it or one doesn’t get to evaluate those questions until after certain commitments have been made or it’s just plain too complicated to find out.

Look for another post soon about FaceBook applications and quizzes and the kinds of information give-aways and grab-ups that they involve.

Web-monitoring software gathers data on kid chats

* By DEBORAH YAO, AP Business Writer – Fri Sep 4, 2009 5:16PM EDT

Parents who install a leading brand of software to monitor their kids’ online activities may be unwittingly allowing the company to read their children’s chat messages — and sell the marketing data gathered.

Software sold under the Sentry and FamilySafe brands can read private chats conducted through Yahoo, MSN, AOL and other services, and send back data on what kids are saying about such things as movies, music or video games. The information is then offered to businesses seeking ways to tailor their marketing messages to kids.

“This scares me more than anything I have seen using monitoring technology,” said Parry Aftab, a child-safety advocate. “You don’t put children’s personal information at risk.” [Read More…]

Author: Dan Ryan

I'm currently an Academic Program Director at I've been a professor at University of Toronto, University of Southern California, and Mills College teaching things like human centered design, computational thinking, modeling for policy sciences, and social theory. I'm driven by the desire to figure out how to teach twice as many twice as well twice as easily.

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