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…]

Information Rot

A whole chapter in my book on the sociology of information will be about information permanence and impermanence and so this posting by David Pogue caught my eye: “Should You Worry about Data Rot?” It’s text of an interview that was a part of a video piece he did for CBS a few weeks ago. The basic idea is that we store our data on media that are subject to degradation and that require for play back hardware or software that have short lifetimes. We are left with the problem of constantly “migrating” our data to new formats.

An important observation : the pace at which data recording formats become obsolete and unreadable is accelerating. The experts cited in the piece suggest we are currently at the ten year mark — at this point, one needs to migrate to new media every ten years.

The video piece ends with the observation that there’s never been, nor ever will be, a data recording technology that lasts forever. Of course, one’s first thoughts go to clay tablets from ancient Persia, which seem to have held up rather well. True, but of all the clay tablets ever produced, we have, in all likelihood, but a small fraction. But then, given what’s on most of them (e.g., records of grain sale transactions or inventories of food storage), it’s not clear that the information order is impoverished by their absence. Of what fraction of our current information holdings could the same be said of. One wonders, but one migrates one’s own data, just in case.