Parents should be careful about monitoring their children's online activities
Key loggers can be a useful tool for finding out what your child is looking at, but think about how to react if you are discovered
Only a few years ago, parents were saying that children should not use computers until they came of age, but today schools require children to do homework online, bringing issues into the home we have to deal with.
Unfortunately, nothing on our computer networks is safe from spying eyes. We live in a low-trust, high-surveillance world where technology is being used by employers to keep track of their employees and parents to keep tabs on their children. In this brave new digital age, we should raise our offspring to be aware that nothing digital is private, that every video they watch on YouTube, every Facebook post or e-mail they send will be stored somewhere permanently and could get them in trouble.
We can prepare them by monitoring their computer activities to protect them from all the nasty stuff online. But should we be open about this? What about trust? Telling them that their digital footprints are visible to us, and that checking these records may make us feel better about it could also frustrate our attempts at monitoring.
This is a complex moral issue and there are no easy answers. Is the computer a shared instrument or only for a child's personal use? Monitoring a shared computer is easier to justify than your child's personal PC. What age is the child? What is appropriate for a five-year-old will not be for a 10- or 15-year-old. Much depends on whether you trust your child and hopefully you do, at least to some extent. Do they have a history of naughty behaviour? If you trust them it is important to let them know this and one way is to give them some privacy. They are less likely to break the rules if they know you trust them; they will not want to betray your trust. On the other hand, if they know you don't trust them, they will feel they have less to lose by adding to their record of misbehaviour. Remember we are trying to prepare them for life in Hong Kong, not North Korea. Only if teenagers go off the rails, start taking drugs or get into seriously dangerous activities should we monitor them more closely or covertly.
But supposing you have decided to monitor your children because of concerns about their safety which you believe override their right to privacy, what do you do? The humble key logger is an affordable solution for those who do not have an NSA-size technology budget.
What is a key logger?
Key loggers come in software or hardware, including pen drives, keyboard adapters and keyboards which can be purchased online. They record every keystroke which is typed on your keyboard, regardless of whether you are shopping online, filling in your tax return or answering your e-mails. They will also record the keys you type in password fields even though these are hidden to you by asterisks. They can take screenshots too, and all this can be monitored remotely. The best loggers are almost impossible to detect, while free ones will do for most parents. But how do you process the data mountain they produce, and what do you do when surveillance is revealed?
To test a software key logger, I downloaded and installed the free version of one popular application on my family PC. It did not set off the antivirus alarm and left no installation traces. It could be accessed only with a keyboard shortcut. Soon I was able to see all the YouTube videos my child had viewed when she was supposed to be doing her homework, neatly displayed in chronological order. A friend who tried the same software even saw his wife's e-mail password. He informed her that her security had been compromised.
Of course in real life it would quickly become time-consuming to read a child's data records. Parents should spend their time helping with homework or talking to their children instead, unless they suspect something serious is being set up online, such as an appointment to buy drugs after school. Technology cannot take the place of time spent interacting with children in the real world. We have a lot of values and data in our heads, and children need two or three hours with us every day while they are growing up to download most of it.
What should a parent do when a child notices the monitoring? There are various strategies if you are noticed in the act: you can deny everything, as they do in Beijing, or claim you are acting in the interest of your child's safety, à la NSA in the US. Of course it depends on who caught you, how much you have monitored and what you did with the data. It is probably better to be open about it and say: get used to it, the government spies on you and they will spy on you for your whole life; I am just a temporary stand-in! If you are not doing anything seriously wrong, why worry that Big Parent is watching you?
If you are a child reading this, congratulations, reading is good for you! Have a little sympathy for your parents; they grew up in a world without computers, networks, smartphones, Facebook and YouTube. They are struggling to adapt to new opportunities and risks. Act indignant if you catch them monitoring you but remember they have your best interest at heart. And don't overdo the protest, or they will think you have something to hide!
Stephen Thompson is a Hong Kong-based journalist and IT consultant