My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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let the stalking begin

I regularly receive press releases from companies that i promptly delete as a new form of spam. Today, i received one that stopped me in my tracks:

You can now load software in your kids’ BlackBerry and/or cell phone that will be your watchdog (to prevent them from being approached by someone potentially trying to molest them)

How it works — the program will send the parents a text message when a foreign IM, text message or e-mail comes into their child’s phone or PDA (anyone not on an approved phone contact list).

The concept was thought of by Bob Lotter, a software publisher in Orange County, because he was so alarmed to learn that 56% of kids receive unwanted cell or PDA solicitations (which they don’t tell their parents about). (Sixty percent have been approached.) Lotter has also created a homepage for parents on resources they need to track strangers.

It was a peculiar press release because the company (a known PR agency) did not include any links and i can’t find much about Bob Lotter other than he seems to be connected to the scientology world.

I’ve been waiting for mobile stalking software for a while. We already have GPS-driven stalking software that will let parents figure out where their kids are. (Kids have figured out how to circumnavigate this by sending their phone off with their friends.) And i’ve met plenty of parents who obsessively scour the phone bill to see who their kids are talking to and for how long. But i’m quite impressed with this new level of parental stalking software.

I’m also absolutely fascinated by the assumption that “your kid” will have a Blackberry and that this software will prevent your kid from being approached by a molester (at first, i thought that the advert was going to be for mace). This software is not about protecting children from strangers that they meet face-to-face – it’s about giving parents control over who their kids talk with rather than teaching them how to navigate people. Of course, i can’t wait until mobile text message spamming kicks in. Kids will be getting hundreds of messages from people that they don’t know and thus their parents will be notified and notified and notified. There’s nothing like a bit of spam to make this a complete mess.

Anyhow, this just infuriates me and i can’t even offer a proper analysis except to scrunch my face in disgust. As i’ve written about before, the stats on predators is pretty clear: it’s people that children know not strangers. I kinda suspect that the #1 child molester (the parent) is not going to be on the list of people blocked.

Surveillance destroys parent-child relationships – technology does not solve relationship issues. And yet, we keep building technology. Why? Fear sells. These people will inevitably make money off of parent’s fears. Le sigh.

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15 comments to let the stalking begin

  • Isn’t teenager life about trying to figure out new social rules and making new relations? Anyway. . .

    You gave figures about how parents were the major molesters — but what about the other way round? Do you have any idea of the proportion of control-freak parents that are molesters (trying to avoid the information to leak through a friend)? Maybe this technology will help finding the molesters indeed, but from the client database.

  • I definitely agree. There is far too much fear-mongering over technology that people don’t understand and far too much of the “think of the children!” mentality.

    Oh and by the way, congrats! the Great Firewall of China has blocked you. I needed a proxy to post this comment from the mainland.

  • Though most parents aren’t molesters. You might as well argue that electronically tagging men is a good idea because a tiny minority are rapists and that the risk of letting men roam around freely is too great to take. On balance, I agree with Danah – strong family relationships are crucial. But parents also have a responsibility to understand this technology, not to let their engagement of it be dictated by the media and scare stories. Only then will they have a chance to realistically education their kids how to deal with it.

  • Sigh.

    Agree with this in regards to the teens. 13+ is the time to experiment with adulthood & responsibility & communication.

    In my mind we need to start seperating “youth”– teens and anyone under the 13 mark. Why? Because I keep reading about the next big marketing trend– tweens & kids (younger than 12) having cell phones. I’m all about technology & the future… but I’m having a mental block when it comes to 9 year olds having cell phones. That’s a whole other conversation about responsibility: who is the adult, who is the kid, and why is the kid being put in the position of being their own adult?

  • Well, I think that this is another point of no return in which every one is supposed to be mad or crazy. I agree with you about the main offender are the parents and as a father of two I’m not going to give them a mobil phone because it’s false that if they have one we’ll know more about what are they doing or where are.
    And also why we are always linking tech with delinquency, that one was there before, isn’t it?

    Sorry for my poor english

  • “technology does not solve relationship issues”

    Amen.

  • No kid will like to be monitored by their parents,invariable of the kids who are not doing anything wrong and the kids who are hiding something from parents..So fear could sell but it cannot yield respect..
    Breakdown Insurance

  • Arian Kooshesh

    spammers save the day, again. Just like on myspace.

  • I’m a great fan of this blog and often find your views enlightening considering my conservative view points but am appalled by this particular entry. For one calling the parent “the number 1 child molester” is down right horrible, no matter what metaphor you are supposedly implying.

    Now, I do believe that there are over bearing parents out there who could with any other technology exploit it’s power. But, what so many seem to be forgetting is that the motivation behind this is love. While it may not be the right thing (mending relationships and building trust) to do it’s intentions are well met. This company is selling “peace of mind” for parents who are being bombarded with the evils broadcasted daily in the news.

  • Rodney

    Ryan,
    It’s not well said in the article but most child molestation is done by close family members and family friends. Parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins and the parent’s close friends. Children are most often abused by people they already know and trust, not strangers.

  • Didn’t find anything on our lame friend? A few seconds of google says he’s the CEO of eAgency (.com) which makes some other random stuff in addition to the privacy invading sort.

  • Parents by blood are very unlikely molesters. When a parent molests, it’s usually a man birth mother meets after birth of child. This is not often printed in media, for political correctness reasons. Uncles and other blood relatives do molest, so I am not saying the blood tie is absolute.

    As to the cell phone surveillance, It does provide some comfort to parents, for the rare case when a child is snatched. It will not help monitor when you kid is naughty, because they will realize very quickly they need to turn the phone off. It’s probably not worth the effort and family strain, but I might feel differently if I was a parent.

  • No, I don’t quite see the problem with this. My son will have a lot of opportunities for communication that I didn’t have, and in that special manner that he may feel anonymous and safe when he probably isn’t.

    He’s not two yet. But my plan is, rather than restricting him from these new technologies like cell phones and net access, I will let him have unrestricted, but somewhat monitored access – and I won’t hide it from him, of course. For that matter, he could see my logs as well! Not contents of communication, unless we tell explicitly, but who? Definitively.

    Blasting this because it does not solve the problems of abusing relatives… well, that’s not the problem this was supposed to solve. It was supposed to give children freedom, but accountability.

  • Nerdx07

    I am 14 and very interested in computers and technology. I know i’m a bit young to be sumbitting comments towards this but I just feel my comment in a teenagers point of view is very important.

    For one, mobile technology has become way more advanced than this. You can pinpoint your child/spouse position with satelight pinpointing, in 3D. you can listen in on there conversations without them knowing, you can view there actions, there text messages, emails, blogging, ect ect with one special software that has advanced behind police & FBI’s backs.

    This software can not be accessed google, bing, or any search engine. It is used by a glitched pop up that you can reach using usual stalking sites such as:
    glitched myspace, face book or tagged. Hi-5 is even being hacked to register more of these stalking ads.
    ads. They may not be what they seem. For example, if you see a low-detail ad, click on it and see where it takes you.

    Why do I know all this? Because it was once used on me.
    Do not fret, mainly people with unusual emails:
    ones with frequent other languages, lots of numbers and lots of underscores. this is not a real email (well it may be) and is not associated with this software. It is just an example:
    recesmeinold_08375888234@examplemail.com

    these are the ones that send you emails for discount handbags, loose weight, transferring money into your bank, ect ect. spam, mainly.
    always check the email.

    i am not giving the name of the software, i will leave you to embrace in this awesome mystery of stalking.

  • Jay Smith

    This begs the question why you would allow the Church of Scientology to track your children, or in the case of Lotter’s CRM business why would you want the Church of Scientology following your business contacts? E-agency and other Lotter operated businesses appear to be fronts for the Church of Scientology as Lotter and most of his management team are active in the Church of Scientology and the Church of Scientology has promoted Lotter and Lotter’s businesses. Who owns and operates E-agency’s servers? Where is personal, private and business information that is collected by E-agency for its clients stored? Is E-agency, its related financial management company and insurance company actually owned by the Church of Scientology and if so are you still willing to trust your personal and business data to such an entity?

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