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WASHINGTON, D.C. — If power corrupts, does technological power corrupt absolutely?

At an intimate workshop in Georgetown this week, just a quick Uber ride from the Halls of American Power, discussion turned to a different power struggle — parents vs. teenagers. Some of the brightest minds in the world are here to discuss the fragility of life in the digital age.  And while there was plenty of talk about bad passwords, the recent theft of data belonging to potentially every federal employee, and how to deal with massive government surveillance, the conversation pivoted to an issue that hits much closer to home.

Most privacy discussions so far have pitted fairly obvious adversaries against each other  — government vs. citizen,  corporation vs. consumer, everyone vs. hackers. But a new wave of conversations is arriving soon, and you’d better be ready for it at the dinner table.

It might go like this: “But Mom, I had to fill the car with gas. It’s the first time I’ve been late in a long time!”

“Actually, kiddo, you’ve come home an average of 17.3 minutes late in the past three months.”

Or this:

Dad: “The baby slept 3.6 minutes less last week than the week before. I think we should go to the doctor.”

Mom: “Or, the sun is coming up earlier now, it’s summer.”

It’s Big Data at home.  Or, it’s Big Parenting. Or Big Brother.

The annual Security and Human Behavior Workshop is not your average technology show. There are only a few dozen participants, and they are handpicked. There are no formal presentations, just quick 10-minute talks followed by a half-hour or more of free-flowing discussion. And the prized participants aren’t computer scientists. They are behavioral economists, medical experts, even magicians. (A large part of my book Stop Getting Ripped Off had its genesis at the first SHB conference, where I met The Amazing Randi. His knowledge of fraudster tricks is, well, magical.)

Unsaid at this year’s conference, but behind every speaker’s participation: Computer security stinks, obviously, so we’d better turn over every rock to find better solutions soon. These folks aren’t trying to hack computers. They’re trying to hack humans — for our benefit, of course. Behavioral studies of all kinds take center stage. Here’s one small slice of the discussion.

The Internet of Things will fill our homes with George Jetson-like gadgets that will do everything from remotely unlocking the front door to turning on the roast in the crock pot. Well, forget will — those gadgets are already for sale. So are cameras that recognize people coming and going through the front door. Of course, these comings and goings can be logged and categorized, all the better to see curfew-busting trends.

In their use, we might find lessons that can teach us something about Ed Snowden and the NSA.

Microsoft researcher Stuart Schechter.
Microsoft researcher Stuart Schechter

Stuart Schechter studies these kinds of issues for Microsoft Research and discussed a recent paper which gave parents the chance to be Director of National Intelligence for a day. Sort of.  Parents of teenagers were promised whiz-bangy surveillance cameras and allowed to configure them in a variety of more-or-less spooky ways.  They could “spy” on kids coming in and out the door through log files, and notify the kids they were being audited. Or they could do it secretly. They could check the log file only after getting their kids’ permission…or not. They could also “spy” on their spouses — with permission, or with notification, or secretly. I bet you know where this is going.

By default, people give themselves maximum power. Just like companies and governments are likely to do.

Microsoft Research

For example, parents were given the change to have no log, a text log, or a photo log of their kids.  Every parent chose the photo log.  And every parent chose the ability to audit comings and goings one way or another without permission from the teens.

Most teen-agers objected, like this:

“I would not like that at all…This is like parents going psycho,” said one.

Two others mentioned that they’d start spending time at other kids’ homes if their parents installed the technology. The paper muses about other potential trust breakdowns that might arise from the technology, but it’s understandable that parents might not feel they need their kids’ permission to take their picture — or to look at the history of their comings and goings.  After all, parents probably don’t feel like they need permission to access their kids’ Facebook accounts, though logging in without telling them probably isn’t a great idea.

It’s a little less understandable how domestic partner adults treated — spied — on each other. A majority gave themselves permission to spy on their partner without notice. Only 14 percent selected “only with permission.” Another 29 percent selected “anytime with notice.”

The paper concludes, in a most understated way: “Surveillance in the home can be a particularly fraught topic, with a history of debate on topics ranging from spousal wiretap to teen privacy.”

Of course, use of such technology is just an act of love — at least, that’s how the firms selling the gadgets see it. Karen Levy, a research fellow at NYU School of Law, showed a series of advertisements for family member monitoring gadgets that all invoke the language of love. Sproutling, for example, calls itself a next-generation baby monitor. It’s a little like an ankle bracelet you might put on a paroled criminal, but Sproutling also measures other things, like heart rate. “Grow happy families” says one ad. “We’re still napping. We’ll let you know when we’re awake.”


After hearing the gasps at the potential privacy implications of second-by-second data collection on a baby, the group discussed plenty of reasonable use-case scenarios. Location monitors can be helpful — even liberating — to parents of autistic children, and to families dealing with the elderly. Fears about Sudden Infant Death Syndrome could be abated.

On the other hand, there’s a link between being observed and being anxious — of course there is — and the group wonders if parents having an “Eye in the Sky” on their kids might make the current anxiety epidemic even worse. After all, someone says, if parents had a camera on me as a kid, there’s 1,000 experiences I wouldn’t have had. Perhaps, as we do so often in national security, we are restricting everyone’s lives to prevent a series of very low-probability events.

It’s not easy being Big Brother.

The conference, run by privacy/security titans Alessandro Acquisti, Ross Anderson, and Bruce Schneier, continues today.

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