It Takes a Village to Spy on a Child
As boss as I think technology is, I do find it disturbing that the two things we humans immediately use new technologies for are porn and to spy on one another. Sometimes both at the same time. I’ll leave the porn alone (for now) and focus on domestic spying. The astute reader might assume that I’m about to go off on a rant against the Bush Administration abusing its power and using the National Security Agency (NSA) to wiretap its own citizens without a warrant or court approval. While that’s not an unworthy topic, I’ll leave skewering this blatant violation of civil liberties to America’s Finest News Source, The Onion (“Bush Defends US Baby Monitoring Program“).
The domestic spying program I find compelling is the one that happens in our own homes and communities. London is the place I call home at the moment, so I’ll refer to a UK-focused study that uses the city as its sample. London’s cup runneth over with Closed Circuit Television (CCTV). It’s said to have the largest number of CCTV cameras of any major city in the world. There are at least 500,000 cameras perched on top of buildings, buried in the Underground, affixed to buses, bolted inside buildings — strategically trained on license plates/tags, and locked onto housing ‘estates’ (the UK term for social housing or projects).
Clive Norris and Michael McCahill’s Urbaneye Project study, “On the Threshold to the Urban Panopticon?” (2002) makes for surprisingly interesting reading. Funding for CCTV took a huge jump with the rise of Irish Republican Army (IRA) bombings in British cities. The London areas known as the City (the financial district), Oxford Street (the largest shopping area), and the Westminster (home to the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey) all have combined about 1,500 cameras monitoring tourists and citizens, as if we’re all suspect of . . . something.
According to both the study and Norris’ co-authored book The Maximum Surveillance Society: the Rise of CCTV (1999), as I go about my day throughout London I can expect to be filmed 300 times on the streets of The Big Smoke. I knew I was meant to be a star, but 300 cameos in the same outfit are a bit much even for immodest me. And it’s a noticeable amount of coverage when one moves from a place where the citizens would go ballistic over such spying (liberal hotbed Portland, Oregon, once dubbed by George Bush, Senior’s staff as “Little Beirut”) to a city like London, where CCTV on thee is a fact of life.
French theorist Michel Foucault theorized the panopticon; CCTV’s predecessor. The panopticon was the 19th century prison innovation that placed guards in a watchtower in the center with the inmates’ cells surrounding it. The goal was to keep the inmates under constant surveillance, or at least to make them feel like they were. Like the prisoners in the panopticon, one learns various coping mechanisms to deal with being, and feeling, constantly monitored: using CCTV as a dating tool when meeting a blind Internet date for the first time under the gaze of the London Underground’s CCTV network (“Look right up there, smile, and wave!”; suppressing the need for a good butt-pick by pretending that all one’s underwear are thongs and not a series of miserable wedgies; considering every filmed moment an audition for Big Brother; or consolation with the thought that most technology in the city is in disrepair so its unlikely that the CCTV cameras work, anyway. This last would particularly be the case if you’re mugged and actually would like CCTV footage handy.
I would assume that CCTV cameras are located in predominately economically and racially diverse areas: more cameras in Afro-Caribbean Brixton than in celebrity-strewn Primrose Hill, say. One government-sponsored regeneration program proposes to allow residents of a deprived area to view CCTV footage from their home televisions. The program is dubbed “ASBOS TV”. An ASBOS is an anti-social behaviour order that fines, mostly youths, for street harassment, including littering, drug dealing, racial hate speech and this specialized CCTV is supposed to empower residents to report suspicious characters or people they think are guilty of anti-social behavior. (see also Raphaël Costambeys-Kempczynski’s PopMatters column, Channel Crossings: How to Earn Your Anti-social Badge of Honour) Asbos Concern, a civil liberties group that objects to how ASBOS are used, highlights problems with CCTV employed in this way and predicts its misuse. Similarly, civil liberties groups in Washington, DC, Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York are all fighting the widespread implementation of CCTV for fear that the privacy rights of people of color will be disproportionately impacted.
I do feel a sense of safety in knowing that the cameras are there and that someone is watching when I’m at the ATM or on the bus after midnight. Some might accuse me of going soft and apolitical for such a sentiment. This feeling of security, of course, comes at a price. But then I saw how quickly London police were able to solve several violent crimes, including apprehending the 7 July bombers, using CCTV footage and I couldn’t help but be impressed.
What, then, is the solution? Flooding every city street, regardless of the race or class of its residents, with surveillance cameras? Stripping civil liberties wholesale? Or removing cameras altogether and hoping that citizens will be vigilant and forthcoming when it comes to witnessing crime?
It would seem that, at least in the US where CCTV is not as widespread – yet – as in the UK, a third option is available: condition children to being watched. Perhaps it’s a sign of growing older and wiser that I don’t worry as much as I used to. Or more likely I worry about different things. I’d heard tell that one mellows with age, but that idea seems to be at odds with people I know who’ve become parents within the last eight years. I’m childfree with no plans to change that status (the Pill be willing), so it’s with amusement that I watch as parents in grocery stores, malls, on the commercial high streets, and even in their homes decide to “lo-jack“, that is, monitor their babies’, toddlers’, and adolescents’ every move.
How times have changed since I was a kid. The worst adult snooping I had to worry about as a child was whether my parents would read my diary. I wasn’t too concerned because a typical entry read, “Went to Miti-Mini with Denise to buy candy. Had watermelon Now n’ Laters and banana Laffy Taffy. My mouth is a festival of fruit flavor. The End.” Otherwise, I always had my own room and was allowed to close the door. It was a privileged, middle class existence that might account for some of my more reclusive tendencies today.
But these days, the panoply of technological products designed to monitor, keep track of, and otherwise spy on children grows daily. Yet these products are no match for two populations that always find their way around technology: kids and criminals. Sometimes they’re one in the same because criminals were once badass kids and some kids grow into felons. Or at least this is the evolutionary path some technologies predict. The implication of the technology is that parents can’t win, that they can never do enough to keep their children in line. However, they can spend their way into a false sense of security that the kids are all right.
To wit, from the lo-tech to the high-tech, some of the technology Mummy and Daddy can buy to keep little Chauncey and Jemima from wandering off at the Super Target or attending a teen sex party reminiscent of Larry Clark’s unnerving 1995 movie, Kids:
The Lo-Tech Tether
If an umbilical cord for nine months wasn’t enough, there’s the plastic, curled child leash that looks like a keychain. It attaches to your wrist and has a harness that goes across your Chauncey’s chest. He ends up looking a bit special, but then he is your special bundle of joy. The plastic leash also allows the child the full imaginative experience of pretending to be a puppy or a yo-yo. Though it’s decidedly lo-tech, the plastic leash paved the way for electronic leashes.
The Gentle Persuasion of Low Voltage, Applied Properly
For that modern, wireless feel, more companies are manufacturing electronic leashes. This includes a transmitter (often shaped like a delightful zoo animal) and an adjustable receiver that beeps when the kid starts to wander off out of range anywhere from six to 30 feet. There are also wrist or ankle versions of this device, very helpful in preparing the child for their future life as a parolee. Let’s be clear, though; if the child has a propensity to wander out of range anywhere over 10 feet, perhaps consider leaving the little mite at home with a sitter so you can pour through the racks at Marshall’s without that confounded monitor beeping.
One- and two-way baby monitors have been on the scene for years. If you’re going to a baby shower and someone’s already nabbed the thing that handles smelly diapers, baby monitors are the next best gift. Really what gripe could I have with parents only wanting to guard against crib death by making sure their baby is still breathing – every single minute of the night? Absolutely none. Besides, the earlier the child gets used to being monitored, the better for all of society. Audio monitoring is a nice ease into the full-on visual, 24-7 surveillance that will undoubtedly be in effect by the time Jemima is able to fly her space car down to the local convenience store for some freeze dried milk.
Surveillance For the Hip Adolescent
By the time kids are allowed out unsupervised, they’ll likely rebel against leashes and monitors. Luckily, the kiddie mobile market is booming! Or rather that’s what makers such as Enfora and Firefly are hoping. For the tween in your life, these mobile phones are more like mini-Star Trek communicators. Firefly mobile is cute and colourful and only allows for five programmable numbers. The Enfora TicTalk is pre-programmable, but also includes math, science, spelling, and social studies games. There’ll be none of that bullying by text with this phone. No prank phone calls to Mo’s Bar asking for, “Amanda Huginkiss”. These types of devices give the illusion of freedom, but like adult mobiles, they monitor kids by limiting their telephone interaction.
And So Much More . . .
Safety & security fun for the whole family can be found at MapSexOffenders.com. After checking a popup box agreeing not to do vigilante violence with information gleaned from the site, anyone in 42 out of the 50 states can enter an address and see where the local rapist, flasher and Chester the Child Molester have decided to settle post-prison. Since the service isn’t available in the UK, I mapped my parent’s address in the US: more than 50 sex offenders are in their area code. If teens are already used to being monitored, websites such as these both cautionary and highlight the vagaries of surveillance: if you commit the crime, do the time forever.
As we can see there’s a bit of civil liberty-violating technology for every stage of life. It can, of course, be argued that children have no civil liberties and parents are duty-bound to protect them by whatever means available. I’m not (completely) belittling parental fears that their precious offspring or expensively acquired international adoptee will disappear into thin air. But I do think that child surveillance can go too far. It seems easy for a parent to overstep the mark between protecting their child and stunting the growth of a child’s personal boundaries and sense of a private self. We’re currently raising citizens who might become aware that, at one time, there was such a thing as civil liberties and privacy. But maybe we can take comfort in knowing that, more often than not, one cannot miss what one’s never had.
One Man’s Rubbish, Another Man’s Gold
Many of us in the ‘developed’ world spend a large part of our day interacting with technology. Whether it be something we choose to do, or something we have to do — our lives are being ‘tech-graded’. And whether I want to admit it or not, my life revolves around the many tech products that I own.
I choose to embrace technology, but whether I like it or not, many of my simple, everyday gadgets are perpetually being upgraded to take advantage of advances in technology. Be it our washing up liquid with intelligent washing powder, debit cards which are slowly replacing cash that now use ‘chip and pin’, kitchen appliances that automatically detect and cook the food placed in them, or fridges that monitor the expiry date on products and let you know when you are running low on milk – these things are always changing . . . improving. The flip side to such devices being ‘always on’ and monitoring whatever it is that they monitor is that, with a little surveillance, our private information can now be found readily by anyone with such an inclination. What you throw in to the bin today could become a charged on your card round the world trip for your garbage man tomorrow.
The 2005 Computer Security Institute’s Survey on Computer Crime and Security (CCSS) reports some very shocking figures (GOCSI.com — requires registration for report). Many of the respondents had suffered from breaches to their security systems, and surprisingly these were not from outside hacker attacks — but from internal misuse. In a time when intangibles such as data and information can be worth far more to businesses than precious metals, the situation is made worse as it is those intangibles which are easier for disgruntled employees or malicious outsiders to get hold of and used to demand a ransom, or simply to get revenge: respondents reported losses of $170,827,000 in one year from theft of proprietary information,
It isn’t just businesses which are at threat from such attacks. As more of us choose to integrate technology into our private lives or as corporations, in their wisdom, continually tech-upgrade our lives for us, we find that the biggest challenge is not how well we protect our homes from intruders but how well we protect our private information that could be more valuable to criminals, and potentially cause far more damage to our lives than a stereo and TV lost to a burglary.
Personal computers coupled with an Internet connection have proved to be the greatest impetus for the integration of technology in the modern home. As corporations and Governments think of ways of providing the benefits of computers to those outside the ‘developed world’, for example the introduction of ‘$100 laptops’ that are being developed by members of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s media lab with the aim of distributing them ‘one per child’ via Government programs in the ‘developing’ world: many countries that currently have low computer saturation will be coming up to par with their more ‘developed’ counterparts. (For more on this initative, see Laptop.org) As more homes now connect to the Internet via a broadband connection and stay connected for longer; in effect we are opening up our homes to outside attack. So now, not only is your average local burglar a threat, but now so can be anyone else in your ‘hood with a computer and an Internet connection.
The number one threat to personal computing is viruses. Viruses are created to cause different types of damage, from sending out spam emails to your address book to wiping data and rendering your computer useless. Most people are aware of the need to install and keep up-to-date antivirus software. But for every virus that is protected against, be sure that someone has created a new one. This constant battle against viruses costs both time and money: respondents on the CCSS reported losses of $12 million from viruses in a one year period. Having up to date antivirus software does not completely eliminate the risk of viruses getting on to your computer. Unfortunately the safest way to be virus free is to switch off your computer.
Many more homes now have more than one computer, and sharing a broadband Internet connection wirelessly is proving very popular. However this can cause further problems if the connection is left unsecured; now it is open to anyone living close or passing by who just happens to have the right equipment . . . Not only are you providing a way for others to use your connection for free, but in effect opening up the door to your home as a free for all.
The best way to be safe is to make sure you have up to date antivirus and spyware software and regularly check for new virus definitions. Firewalls are a great way of controlling the data that leaves your machine and who you allow access to your computer. It is a bonus if you have one on a single system, however it is essential to configure a firewall and password when setting up a wireless network.
One of the many benefits of the Internet is the convenience of online shopping . The majority of online trade is safe and secure, as you are dealing with reputable and established companies; however, this still remains the easiest way for you to be parted from your hard earned cash. The US National Consumer League reported losses from complainants at $13,863,003 in 2005. The easiest way to be safe when shopping online is to deal with companies that have been recommended to you and to keep an eye out for deals that are too good to be true. You could well find your item is never delivered from that Cayman Island warehouse.
The Internet doesn’t just pose a threat to international security but also individual privacy. Being a free publishing zone, the Internet is used to publish that which most of us would deem inappropriate, and in these cases we need to have some traceability and hold people to account. However new legislation is due to be passed which calls for all European telecoms providers to store phone and Internet data for a period of two years, due to be implemented in 2007. We can’t object to this being used for lawful purposes, but with such masses of data being available, no one is anonymous on the Internet anymore. In countries where Governments are known to be less scrupulous in hiding their misdemeanours, such data could be used to find those who use the Internet to bring about political and social change and hamper their attempts. Indeed this could spiral out of control if countries like China, where social repression is the norm, start developing their own controlled Internet. (see “China Creates Own Net Domains” on The Boston Globe, “China’s Ministry of Information Industry revamps Internet domain names system” on Interfax China, and “The Credible Threat” on Michael Geist’s blog.)
Those who don’t know how to protect their identities online, especially those who are vulnerable or gullible, could be taken advantage of. An extreme example of this can be found on the suicide forums, which are popular in Japan. These forums provide a cyber space for those who are thinking of committing suicide to meet like-minded people. (See also tjm Holden’s PopMatters column, ReDotPop: RedWebPop) Killers are targeting such sites as a way to find victims, sometimes excusing their actions by picking a victim who “wanted to die anyway”. Technology has opened up a world of crime and in Japan, a country with such high levels of technology-saturation, meaningful increases have been seen in crimes such as robbery, rape, injury, intimidation, blackmail, fraud, child pornography, and child prostitution — all the result of cell phones and ‘dating’ Internet web sites
We all want to be a part of this information technology revolution and the promises it brings. But as we’ve been taught as children to stay away from strangers, and to wait for the ‘green-man’ when crossing the road, so, too, we should have ways of educating mainstream users of the Internet of emerging threats. As you would secure your home, be sure to secure your private information: install antivirus software and enable your firewall on your computer, teach your children to browse safely and place the computer in the family room where you can, yes, keep an eye on your kids as they use the computer, shred all unwanted paper documents and never respond to requests for your personal details online.
As companies deliver solutions to our security needs, hackers will continually develop methods to crack them. It’s what they do. In this new virtual world, it’s up to you to keep your physical eyes open for ever new virtual threats.