Friday, October 26, 2007

The Spy's Dilemma

My wife teaches at a school, and occasionally arranges for speakers to appear for the benefit of parents. These speakers cover a variety of subjects that should concern all parents, but for some reason, attendance is always sparse. This week, the speaker was a deputy from the Sheriff’s Department, and the subject was the danger of social networks such as MySpace and FaceBook.

The problem is that there are sexual predators who troll online chatrooms and social networking sites. Every year, some underage kid in our area winds up victimized by a sexual predator as a direct result of contact that was made (or information that was revealed) through these Internet sites. So it’s a very real problem, exacerbated by several factors. First, kids lie about their age to open MySpace accounts. Second, kids think their personal information is private. Third, kids think they’re invincible.

You can ask your kid to show you their MySpace account, and some of them will. But some of them will lie and say they don’t have one. Even if they show it to you, you can’t relax, because as the deputy explained, “Some kids have two MySpace accounts; the one they use and the one they show their parents.”

The level of ignorance in the audience surprised me. Most of the parents attending were very nearly computer-illiterate. They all had children who were much more sophisticated than they were on the subject of computers. Their ignorance drove them to elevated levels of fear.

“Can’t we just forbid them from using the Internet?” a parent asked. The deputy responded, “You can do that, but they’ll just use the computer at someone else’s house where you can’t monitor them.” Another parent stated, “My daughter is a good girl, she would never reveal personal information on her MySpace account.” The deputy pointed out that in a social network, you may be very careful, but your friends may not. Then she showed us some MySpace pages she found where teenage girls posted the real names and cell phone numbers of their friends.

The solution to this problem, as presented by the deputy, is to spy on your kids. She explained about keylogging software and screenshot recorder software, designed to track every Web site your kid visits, record every conversation, every password, every download. You can’t be selective about it, it’s all or nothing.

Some parents perked up at the prospect of using such tools, but were confronted by the Spy’s Dilemma. In conventional espionage, spies report on secret activities that are of great interest to their home governments. At some point, this information must be acted upon. But the moment such action takes place, the existence of the spy is revealed, and the source of information is cut off.

So one parent asked the obvious question, “If I find out about something and tell my son about it, won’t he hate me and never tell me anything again?” The police officer responded with an answer that sounded well-rehearsed and rang completely false: “Just tell them you did it because you love them.”

I don’t think spying on your kids is such a good idea. Maintaining a close relationship is important. Knowing who their friends are is important. Checking up on them while they’re using the computer is important. Keeping them educated about risky behavior is important.

Law enforcement officials are well aware that the vast majority of children who are abused grow up to become abusers themselves. I wonder if it’s occurred to them that spying on your kids and using love to justify it will only breed a kid who sees spying as acceptable behavior, and confuse them about the meaning of love. Now I’m going to go and spend some time with my kid to make sure she knows how I feel about her, and who she can talk to when she has questions.

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