Still wondering why we need a stateless media entity like WikiLeaks? This is why

If it wasn’t already obvious that the U.S. government is targeting journalists as part of its ongoing war on leaks, it should be fairly clear now that Guardian writer Glenn Greenwald’s partner has been detained for nine hours in a British airport and had all of his electronics seized by authorities looking for classified documents like the ones Greenwald got from former CIA contractor Edward Snowden. More than anything, this kind of behavior highlights the value of having a stateless, independent media entity such as WikiLeaks.

And if that wasn’t enough, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger has written about an almost unprecedented effort by British authorities to force the newspaper to stop reporting on the government’s surveillance of its citizens — including the seizure and destruction of hard drives at the newspaper’s offices and warnings about future action if the reporting continues. Rusbridger said the paper will continue its work, but will do so from the U.S. As he described it:

“And so one of the more bizarre moments in the Guardian’s long history occurred – with two GCHQ security experts overseeing the destruction of hard drives in the Guardian’s basement just to make sure there was nothing in the mangled bits of metal which could possibly be of any interest.”

A pattern of journalistic harassment


Moving to the U.S. may not be much of an alternative, however, given the American government’s recent behavior. U.S. authorities have said that Britain took the action they did against Greenwald’s partner, Brazilian resident David Miranda, without any direction from the Obama administration — under Britain’s Schedule 7 anti-terrorism law — although the U.S. government did acknowledge that British authorities gave them a “head’s up” about the detention and search. But should we believe this, knowing that senior security officials have routinely lied about their activities?

Given what has happened with Snowden, it’s entirely believable that the Obama administration asked Britain to take such action, or at least suggested that it would be grateful if it occurred. What’s especially depressing is how quick some defenders of the U.S. security apparatus were to argue that it was Greenwald’s own fault his partner was treated in such a way — as though targeting the families of journalists for unreasonable search and seizure should be considered routine:

As the Free Press and others have pointed out, the detention is just part of a much larger pattern of harassment that has been directed at journalists by the U.S. government over the last year — a pattern that includes veiled threats of prosecution against Greenwald and other journalists who have been involved in leaks, as well as the ongoing quasi-legal measures it has been taking against WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.

WikiLeaks is already a media entity

While the idea of WikiLeaks as a media entity is not universally accepted, I and others have argued that it deserves to be thought of in that way: journalism professor Jay Rosen has called it the “first stateless news organization,” and Harvard legal scholar Yochai Benkler has made a persuasive case — both in his writings and in testimony at the Bradley Manning trial — that WikiLeaks is a crucial part of what he calls “the networked Fourth Estate.”

The Guardian hard drive shredding scandal demonstrates why it is necessary to publish early publish often and publish globally.

— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) August 20, 2013

Even Bill Keller, the former New York Times executive editor who has had a somewhat contentious relationship with both Assange and WikiLeaks, has told me that he believes the WikiLeaks founder should be given the same protections as any journalist, and that the attacks on the organization are a serious threat to freedom of the press.

“I would regard an attempt to criminalize WikiLeaks’ publication of these documents as an attack on all of us, and I believe the mainstream media should come to his defense. You don’t have to embrace Julian Assange as a kindred spirit to believe that what he did in publishing those cables falls under the protection of the First Amendment.”

Although WikiLeaks is arguably a media entity in its own right, it also benefits from forming partnerships with existing media players — as it has in the past with The Guardian, the New York Times and others — just as Edward Snowden saw it as valuable to reach out to Greenwald instead of just publishing the NSA documents he had on some random website. Traditional media outlets and journalists not only have a brand value and an existing audience, but they can help put things in context and make their meaning more obvious.

We need Anonymous for journalism


As the U.S. government and others not only put more pressure on the original whistleblowers in such cases — the Bradley Mannings and the Edward Snowdens — but also continue to ratchet up the pressure on the journalists who assist them, it becomes even more important to have some kind of entity like WikiLeaks that can act as a central outlet for such leaks, a place that is theoretically out of reach of U.S. control (if such a thing is even possible).

Even if WikiLeaks isn’t the best candidate for this kind of entity, either because of Assange’s personal behavior or his management style — or both — there arguably needs to be something similar. Perhaps a group like the hacker collective Anonymous — a diffused and leaderless movement that shares a common goal — but for journalistic documents might work. Or a combination of Anonymous and the file-sharing outlet Pirate Bay, where leakers can send their information and know that it will not fall into the wrong hands. Media outlets have tried to create such entities but mostly failed.

Having that kind of stateless, leaderless entity might make it harder for governments to make any headway by attacking individual journalists like Greenwald or even individual leakers. In some ways, it’s unfortunate that such a thing needs to exist at all, but even if we look only at what has happened over the past year, that case has arguably been made. Now all that is required is the motivation and the means to create it.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Carolina Georgatou, Jan-Arief Purwanto and Shutterstock / Rob Kint

No, Craigslist is not responsible for the death of newspapers

Maybe it’s the rash of newspaper sales recently — including the acquisition of the Washington Post by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos and the sale of the Boston Globe to local businessman John Henry — but there seems to be a renewed interest in assigning blame for the rapid decline of the newspaper business, and one name tends to get the majority of the criticism: namely, Craigslist, the free classified-advertising service that some say killed newspapers.

In a recent piece for The New Republic, for example, Alec MacGillis accuses Craigslist founder Craig Newmark of hypocrisy for helping to put together an ethics guide for journalists, a project that Newmark has been working on — and also helping to fund personally — for some time now, along with the Poynter Institute. The New Republic writer argues that this kind of commitment is pretty rich coming from the guy whose service allegedly killed newspapers by sucking the lifeblood out of the print advertising market.

The internet killed newspapers, not Craigslist

Classified local newspaper advertisement and computer mouse

MacGillis seems even more incensed by the fact that Craigslist used to make money by charging for the posting of adult services, although what that has to do with anything isn’t really clear (the company shut down its adult listings section in 2010). Perhaps the point is that the site took money away from entities who produce valuable journalism and other beneficial pursuits — which would make sense if it wasn’t for the fact that most newspapers produce plenty of their own disposable and low-brow content, and have since before the internet came along.

“Ethics for journalists! How wonderful. Are those ethics different than the ones that allow one to make $36 million per year on prostitution ads, thereby making it easier to give away for free the classified listings that were a major source of newspaper revenue? Just checking.”

Leaving that part of his case aside, MacGillis’s argument that Craigslist killed newspapers is absurd, and always has been: as anyone who has followed the industry knows — and as Dan Mitchell points out in a piece at SF Weekly — the printed newspaper business has been decimated by the disruptive effects of the internet itself, and the unbundling of the tasks that a newspaper traditionally performed, something Clay Shirky, Emily Bell and Chris Anderson did a good job of outlining in their “post-industrial journalism” report last year, and something disruption guru Clay Christensen has also described.

Was Craigslist a part of this phenomenon? Of course it was. Newmark’s site, which he set up to make it easy for his friends and neighbors to post items they wanted to sell, took advantage of the internet and the social web to become a huge force in classified advertising, and there’s no question that had an effect on the advertising that went to newspapers. But Craigslist wasn’t the only online provider of free ads, by any means, nor was it the only disruptive force that ate into newspaper ad revenue — the entire internet arguably falls into that category, including a little company called Google.

Craigslist is just a scapegoat

The same problem appears in a new study from NYU’s Stern School of Business, which looks at Craigslist’s impact on the newspaper industry and concludes that it siphoned more than $5 billion from the classified advertising market over a period of years — which, according to the study, caused newspapers to implement a range of steps including boosting their subscription prices and putting up paywalls. But just as MacGillis does, the study looks at Craigslist in a vacuum, as though it was the only site on the internet that had any kind of disruptive effect on newspapers, which clearly isn’t the case.

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The reality is that the decline of print advertising rates and the resulting effect on newspaper revenue would likely have occurred with or without Craigslist, driven by the explosion of webpages and ad providers and the advertising industry’s increasing desire to focus on digital markets, not print-based ones. And those factors were arguably compounded by the newspaper industry’s focus on dumping commodity news content onto the web without approaching it as a separate market, the way web-native providers did.

Blaming Craigslist for the death of newspapers is like blaming Napster for the decline of the record industry: it makes for a convenient scapegoat, especially when the members of the market that has been disrupted don’t want to focus on how their own mistakes and ignorance helped push them off the cliff.

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This post was updated on Thursday to reflect the fact that Craigslist used to charge for adult services but has since shut down that section of the service.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Zarko Drincic and Shutterstock / Feng Yu

Snooping on your kids: How I felt about my father’s online surveillance of me

(This was written by my middle daughter Meaghan, about the online surveillance of my three children I engaged in when they were younger)

This post is the final entry in a series of four stories about my experiences snooping on my kids and their online behavior over a period of years — in this post, my daughter Meaghan writes about her reaction to my surveillance. Part one in the series is here, part two is here and part three is here.

Last week, my dad wrote here about his experiences keeping an eye on me and my sisters while we were online, using keystroke-recording software, what amounts to “Facebook stalking,” and also following all three of us on Twitter and Tumblr. As a result of it all, he’s received a lot of feedback, most of which seems to be split essentially down the middle. Some people think what my dad did was the right thing — that watching over us on the internet was the responsible thing to do as a parent in this day and age — but others haven’t been so supportive.

In response, my dad and I both thought it would be a worthwhile idea for me to provide an account of my feelings about him “spying” on me.

For one thing, I don’t think spying is really the right word for what he did. Dad never hid his surveillance from me; he asked for my usernames and urls on various websites, and talked to me about what he was seeing. Which — as is to be expected for a twelve-year-old girl speaking to her father — often led to some embarrassing conversations, and I admit the rebellious teenager in me resented it.

Privacy is a tricky thing to define

Conversations and resentment like that are hard to avoid for parents. But when I was a frequent user on GaiaOnline, and even as I discovered Tumblr, I was always aware that my dad was paying attention. He’d check up on my Tumblog every so often, and if my url had changed, he’d ask me, and I’d give it to him. I rarely felt that I needed to hide my online activity from him (though I suppose I never really tried).

That said, however, I do understand where some of the backlash is coming from. Some parents are very strict about keeping an eye on their kids in regard to cellphone usage, visiting with friends, and dating, which can sometimes backfire on them. Alternately, some parents are not nearly as diligent, and they believe that freedom will keep their children on the straight and narrow of their own volition, which can also have unforeseen repercussions.

The concept of online privacy is a difficult one — even governments are still debating it and trying to pin it down, and it’s no different when it’s in the home. It’s understandable to see what my dad did with my sisters and I as a huge breach of trust, and as an invasion of our privacy. Definitely, there are facets of my online life and experiences I’ve had — or wanted to have — that I would have preferred to experience without my father’s supervision. And there have been times where I lamented that “my life is over,” and “you’re the worst, I hate you, get out of my life,” when my dad came to talk to me about what I was doing.

On the other hand, I think having him supervise — and knowing that he was supervising — helped me not only to stay out of trouble and behave appropriately for my age, but also fostered a certain amount of critical thinking about why my dad worried about some of the things I did.

A Panopticon phenomenon

It became something of a Panopticon surveillance phenomenon: by not knowing when my dad was watching, I policed my own behaviour and came to better understand what was good or bad, and why. It left me feeling much better about my experiences online knowing that my dad was there not only keeping me out of trouble, but also keeping an eye out for trouble that might be targeting me. I know that I never added any strangers on MSN or AIM or anything like that, but if I had, there would have been no worry in my mind that any predators or strangers could have taken advantage of me.

Having my dad watching me online never left me feeling like I was unable to do anything, and certainly nothing was ever blocked or password-protected. It wasn’t that I had my dad looking over my shoulder physically as I surfed the internet. The intent behind it was clear, at least to me: “Make mistakes and learn from them.”

I was invited to create my own borders on the internet, and it led me to make a lot of better choices than I might have otherwise. I found a community of writers that fostered my talent and put me on the path to cultivating a hobby I enjoyed. Through that, I found another community of fans that take part in the appreciation of books, movies and television shows that helped me to further my writing hobby. Being able to write my own rules when it came to the internet while still having the guiding hand of my father behind me allowed me the space to find what I was really looking for online: companionship.

All in all, my dad’s surveillance of my internet activities has not impacted me negatively in the slightest. I don’t know what my online experiences would have been like if my dad had been completely missing, or too involved in them — I do know that I appreciate what he’s done for me and my sisters. In a way, it almost feels like it’s a specific kind of affection: that my dad cares enough to find out what I’m doing online, but also cares enough that he trusts me to make the right decisions without hurting myself. I think that shows a level of parenting most children would be happy to have.

Images courtesy of Shutterstock users LightspringDenis Vrublev and Sergey Nivens

Snooping on your kids: Sometimes surveillance defeats the purpose

This post is the third of four stories about my experiences snooping on my kids and their online behavior over a period of years. Part one is here, part two is here and the final instalment is here.

In the first two installments of this series, I talked about how I started eavesdropping on our two younger daughters’ behavior online — out of a somewhat misplaced desire to protect them from a variety of imagined dangers — and how I learned something about them along the way, despite misgivings about my surveillance activities.

Our youngest daughter proved to be even more of a revelation in some ways, both because of the way the social web has evolved since I started my family spying program about a decade ago, and because of how her reaction to my monitoring made me rethink what I was doing.

In many ways, the evolution of our daughters’ use of the web has been a kind of microcosm of the broader changes in the internet over the past decade: When I started paying close attention to what our oldest was doing online as a teenager (she is 24 now), it was primarily instant messaging — which now seems like an ancient relic of the web, thanks to the rise of texting and apps like SnapChat or Instagram — as well as some websites where you could play rudimentary games or do puzzles. So a simple keystroke-logging program allowed me to eavesdrop quite easily on most of her activity.

The rise of Facebook and the social web


By the time I started monitoring our second-oldest daughter and her online behavior as a teenager (she is now 19), she spent some time on websites with games or jokes, but she also started to spend a lot more of her time with sites and services that were more like prototypical social networks: virtual worlds like Habbo Hotel, where the engagement with other users was far more important than the actual surroundings or the simplistic games that were played — and sites, like Gaia Online, that offered the ability to write interactive fiction with others who were passionate about the same topics.

In much the same way, we’ve seen the internet evolve from being just a series of static websites through the dawn of what used to be called “Web 2.0” or the interactive web, to the rise of full-fledged — and globe-spanning — social networks like Facebook and Twitter.

Interestingly, all three of our daughters have used Facebook (which started to become popular just as our oldest reached teenager-hood), but their usage waned substantially as they grew older — and it is also a much smaller focus for our youngest daughter than it was for our other two at the same age.

In some ways, they seem to see Facebook as almost a necessary evil, like email is to an older generation, rather than something they want to spend a lot of time on for their own purposes. My colleague Eliza Kern has written about this phenomenon, which I think is fairly widespread with younger users.

Facebook gives way to Tumblr and Twitter


If our middle daughter started the trend in our family of being more interested in sites with a social element rather than just games or other activities, our youngest continued it — beginning with sites like Club Penguin as a child, and then moving on to Facebook and others as she became a teenager. What was interesting about her use of the web, however (as opposed to the usual teenager behavior like texting) was how quickly it started to center around Tumblr and Twitter, and how that more or less stymied my attempts to monitor her online activity the same way I had with her older sisters.

While keystroke-logging software worked with a one-on-one IM conversation, it was of no real use for texting (I didn’t really investigate whether there were similar tools for phones, because that seemed a little too draconian even for me) and it didn’t help much with trying to keep an eye on what she and her older sister were doing on Tumblr or Twitter either. All I got was a mess of text without any kind of reference point for who or what they were talking to or about, which didn’t help much.

And so I did what I’m sure plenty of other parents have done in a similar situation: I more or less gave up on the automated snooping and turned to stalking, by friending them on Facebook and following them on Tumblr and Twitter. The difficulty there, of course, is that following someone is a very difficult thing to keep hidden from the person you are following — it becomes obvious as soon as you do it, unless you create a secret account under a pseudonym just for the purpose, which seemed like a lot of effort to go to.

I decide to stop stalking my kids


My daughter’s response to this was fairly predictable: She hated the idea that I was somehow looking over her shoulder while she interacted with her friends and other fans of the TV shows she talked about on Tumblr and Twitter, and I’m sure she felt much like I did when my parents would sit in the dining room and watch my friends and me trying to have a party in the living room — like a giant wet blanket had been dropped on her online life, smothering any chance of spontaneity. When I asked her to change her online name because it seemed a little offensive, she rolled her eyes and complied, but I could tell I had crossed a line.

Both her response and that of her older sister — who also spent most of her time on Tumblr, live-blogging Teen Wolf and Doctor Who and other favorite shows with an online community of fans — somehow made me feel worse than I had felt before, when I was just anonymously snooping on my daughter’s IM conversations. The idea that even my virtual presence on Tumblr or Twitter might prevent them from being able to express themselves or interact with their friends (some of whom they have never met) in an authentic way made me feel like I was robbing them of one of the most powerful features of the social web.

I had become increasingly concerned over the years about the broader invasion of privacy that my monitoring represented, and had also come to the conclusion that all of my surveillance was achieving very little — since it didn’t actually help me understand what they were going through or where potential trouble spots might lie.

But it was the interference with their development as fully functioning social human beings (whatever that means in an online context) that really gave me pause, and finally made me step back from all of my monitoring.

Now I am back to crossing my fingers and hoping for the best, like most parents have done since the beginning of time.

Monday: One of my daughers talks about what it was like to have a snooping parent.

Images courtesy of Shutterstock / Lightspring and Flickr user Gabrielle Colletti and Shutterstock / ollyy

Jack Dorsey on Twitter’s turning point as a news entity: The day a plane landed in the Hudson

After seven years with Twitter as a part of the social-media ecosystem, we’ve become pretty accustomed by now to the idea that the service functions as a real-time news platform — a cross between a social network and a news-wire staffed by millions of volunteer journalists, reporting on everything from a revolution in Egypt to the killing of Osama bin Laden. Was there a turning point when Twitter stopped being just a plaything for nerds and started becoming a journalistic entity? Co-founder Jack Dorsey says there was: the day an airplane crash-landed in the middle of the Hudson river in 2009.

Dorsey, who famously sketched out the idea for Twitter in 2000, talked to CNBC as part of the network’s recent documentary entitled “The Twitter Revolution,” and described it as the moment when the world started looking at the service as a potential news source rather than just a tech startup with a funny name. “It just changed everything,” he said. “Suddenly the world turned its attention (to us), because we were the source of news — but it wasn’t us, it was this person in the boat, using the service, which was even more amazing.” You can hear more from Dorsey about creating the experience of Twitter at our RoadMap conference in November in San Francisco.

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A sea change in the way the news works

Those comments from Dorsey resonated with me personally, because the landing of US Airways Flight 1549 was definitely a turning point in the way that Twitter was perceived by the traditional newspaper journalists I was working with at the time. Some of us had already begun to see the service as a powerful way of connecting with readers around our work, but few had seen the potential for Twitter to become an actual source of news — a way for the “sources to go direct,” as blogging pioneer Dave Winer has put it.

Even before the Hudson landing, there had already been a few incidents where Twitter had shown a glimpse of that potential: a rash of fires in California, an earthquake in China, and so on. But for whatever reason, the airplane rescue captured the imagination of many more people — journalists and otherwise — perhaps in part because it was such a miraculous event. And the photographer who took the iconic photo, Janis Krums, inadvertently became the prototype of the Twitter-enabled “citizen journalist.”

Over the next two years, Twitter became a larger and larger force not just in the delivery of traditional news but the actual creation of news — in the sense of those “random acts of journalism” that Andy Carvin of National Public Radio has talked about, like the one in which a computer programmer in Pakistan live-tweeted the U.S. special forces attack on Osama bin Laden’s compound. And by 2011, Carvin would be using Twitter as a crowdsourced real-time newsroom to report on the uprisings in Egypt and elsewhere (he has given the Smithsonian the iPhone that he used to do a lot of his Twitter curation).

A megaphone for the world to use

To reinforce that point, in another clip from the CNBC special, Bahraini activist Maryam Al-Khawaja talks about how Twitter has changed the way that dissidents in her country and elsewhere in the Arab world get their message out and connect with others who can help them or who are fighting similar battles:

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The CNBC documentary has other segments as well, including one that follows Twitter CEO Dick Costolo to the gym for his workout, and a look at how social media affected the environment around a high-profile rape case in Torrington, Conn. — but for me, the comments from Jack Dorsey about Twitter’s role in the media just reinforced how far we have come in such a short time.

In many ways, the transformation that was triggered by that photo of Flight 1549 is still underway. Twitter is struggling to figure out what that means for it as a company, and also how it will deal with the conflicts between its own interests in doing business around the world and the restrictions that some countries want to place on the freedom of speech that it allows. But there is no question that, for better or worse, it has changed the way the news works forever.

Images courtesy of Shutterstock / Lightspring and Shutterstock / Vlad Star

Snooping on your kids: what I learned about my daughter, and how it changed our relationship

This post is the second of four stories about my experiences snooping on my kids and their online behavior over a period of years. Part one is here, part three is here and the final instalment is here.

When parents stoop to spying on their children, it’s usually because they are afraid something terrible is happening that they don’t know about — and often they turn out to be right. In my case, I chose to do it partly as a way of learning how to use the tools and partly as a kind of research project into my own children and their online behavior. And I learned a lot.

In the first part of this series, I talked about how reviewing some keystroke-logging software in the early 2000s — designed primarily for businesses to monitor their employees at work — lured me into eavesdropping on my three kids over the course of a decade, using a variety of tools that at times made me feel like I worked for the National Security Agency.

Tracking the online behavior of our first daughter didn’t reveal all that much, apart from the usual teenager angst, but things were somewhat different with our second daughter — in part because she was a different person, obviously, but also because the way she used the internet was different.

As I tried to point out in my first post, I am well aware of the ethical quandary that I dove into when I started this monitoring process, and if I wasn’t already aware of it when I started, I was regularly reminded of it whenever I brought the topic up with friends and fellow parents. Many of them accused me of acting like the secret police, and of not trusting my daughters enough — and yet, at the same time, I thought I could see in some of them a secret jealousy of my abilities, since they all felt the same parental desire I did: namely, to watch over our children in every way possible.

The dawn of the social web

weed joint

Our first daughter was kind of an experiment, since I was new to the tools available, and the social web was also relatively new: there was no Facebook yet, and no Twitter, and blogs were only just becoming popular with a small group of hardcore nerds. LiveJournal was fairly prominent — although my daughter didn’t really use it — but the really big deal, especially for teenagers, was instant messaging via AOL and MSN Messenger and ICQ (anyone remember them?). As far as my oldest was concerned, that was the entire internet.

Apart from one brief mention of marijuana experimentation at a friend’s party, trolling through my daughter’s IM conversations and emails via the aforementioned keystroke-logging software didn’t produce much of interest. There were no secret messages to older men arranging to meet them at a shopping mall, or any of the other bogeymen that parents have been taught to fear when it comes to the internet. And of course, the fact that it was boring was very reassuring.

Our second daughter used instant messaging a fair bit, and I continued using the keystroke-logging program for that purpose, as well as some other tools that pulled in email, etc. But as she moved into her teenage years, she started to spend less time on instant messaging and on childish websites playing silly games, and more time on another category of sites that I had never heard of before: sites that when I look back on it were like early prototypes of social networks — but aimed exclusively at teenagers rather than broadly targeted ones like Facebook or MySpace.

Habbo Hotel and Gaia Online


Habbo Hotel was one example of this phenomenon: a site that used cheesy eight-bit graphics from some old handheld computer game to create a world where residents of a giant hotel could set up their own rooms for a variety of purposes — including music, games, or just chat — and then invite people into their rooms and interact with them. At one point, Habbo (which was owned by a Finnish company) was a huge internet traffic story, and my daughter and her friends spent hundreds of hours a month on it. In some ways it was the Facebook of its day.

The hard part for me and my NSA-style surveillance program was that Habbo also proved to be very difficult to effectively monitor using most of the tools I had — except maybe the one that took random screenshots at regular intervals, which used up a lot of resources (my brother-in-law actually blocked Habbo Hotel at the router level so that his teenaged children wouldn’t go there, and eventually had to shut the internet off at night because they still managed to find a way around his block).

The most interesting aspect of my daughter’s internet use was the amount of time she spent on a site called Gaia Online, which as far as I could tell was devoted to games and socializing primarily around Japanese anime TV shows. But my keystroke-logging program picked up something fascinating after awhile, which I admit I wasn’t expecting: My middle daughter, who hadn’t really shown any interest in writing for school purposes, was spending hours every day writing interactive fiction on Gaia Online — long and involved, emotionally complicated stories based around characters from anime shows.

An unexpected insight

gaia online

Gaia Online was one of the first sites I came across that engaged in this kind of interactive fiction, where one writer would start a story and then others would add to it or take it in a different direction — or suggest different plot twists for the original author. This is almost exactly what Wattpad does now — the Toronto-based startup financed by Khosla Ventures allows authors (including some prominent ones like Margaret Atwood) to upload unfinished work and get feedback from readers.

The upshot of all this was that my snooping revealed not so much the questionable behavior I had been afraid of finding, but a whole side of my daughter that I had never really expected to find — a side that voluntarily spent hundreds of hours writing fiction and interacting with friends around that fiction. And while my daughter hasn’t become a famous writer (yet), she still carries on this behavior today, only now it occurs on Tumblr and is based around TV shows like Doctor Who and Teen Wolf. In a sense, this has helped to shape how she interacts with media as an adult, which I find fascinating.

This revelation made me feel even more torn when it came to my surveillance of her: On the one hand, I still felt bad for invading her privacy — something we have talked about since she stopped being a teenager — but I was also grateful in a sense for being able to discover this other side of my daughter, one that was filled with talent and a love of language and creativity. Does that make it worth all the snooping? That’s hard to say. I wouldn’t really wrestle with that question directly until I started to apply the same surveillance approach to our third and youngest daughter.

Tomorrow: How — and why — I decided to stop snooping on my kids.

Images courtesy of Shutterstock / Lightspring and Shutterstock / Vlad Star and Shutterstock / noporn

Snooping on your kids: If the NSA’s tools were available, I probably would have used them

This post is the first of four stories about my experiences snooping on my kids and their online behavior over a period of years. Part two is here, part three is here and the final instalment is here.

This isn’t an easy thing to admit, but I felt a secret twinge of shame when I was reading the recent leaks about the National Security Agency’s surveillance program — the one that allows them to index all the phone calls of suspected threats, scoop up emails and other internet traffic, and even reportedly listen in on real-time voice and text chats. Why? Because I have either used or tried to use similar types of tools (on a much smaller scale, obviously) to snoop on, creep, stalk and otherwise digitally eavesdrop on the behavior of my children over the past decade or so.

While the tools may have changed over the years, and the websites and mobile apps and social networks they used have also evolved — from simple instant messaging and gaming through virtual worlds like Habbo Hotel and Club Penguin, all the way to Instagram, Snapchat and Tumblr — the ethical and social dilemma remains the same for many parents I think.

The NSA and its defenders have argued that what the agency does is justified — even though it may technically be against the Fourth Amendment — because it allows them to identify potential terrorist threats to the U.S. I made a similar argument to myself about the surreptitious monitoring of my daughters’ online activity: namely, that by doing so, I was helping to identify potential threats to them in the form of drug abuse, poor relationship decisions and other hazards of teenage life. Was I right to do so? To be honest, I’m not sure.

Invasion of privacy or parental right?


I do know one thing: when I casually mentioned to a friend and fellow parent several years ago that I was spying on my then-teenaged daughter while she was on the internet — capturing instant messaging logs, reading emails, even at one point using “keystroke logging” software to track what she typed — my friend was not supportive at all. Instead, she was horrified. How could I do this, she asked, when it was such an invasion of my childrens’ privacy?

At the time, I made the same argument that legions of parents before me have probably made, which is that my children really have no expectation of privacy while they are under my roof. In a sense, I figured they were subject to my laws rather than those of the Constitution — within reason, of course — and if I believed that invading their privacy was what was required in order to keep them safe, then I figured I should be entitled to engage in whatever behavior I saw fit. Shouldn’t I?

The hard part about all this, however, is that there’s a lot more involved than just reading your child’s diary or picking up the extension in the living room to try and eavesdrop on a call they are making from the basement. Although I have stopped snooping on my three daughters — since the oldest is now 24, our middle child is 19 and the youngest is almost 16 — I expect that there is so much technology out there that will allow you to track their every click and status update that you could (as I did) find yourself getting sucked far deeper into monitoring than you ever intended to go.

When I look back at it now, after almost a decade since I first began monitoring their online activity, I can see a number of lessons, some of which are more obvious than others. And I can see how in some ways it was a mistake, but in other ways it showed me things about my children — worthwhile, valuable things — that I would never have learned otherwise. And what’s also interesting is how different all three have been in a number of ways: in their use cases for the internet, in the technologies they chose, and in how all that affected my own approach to eavesdropping on them.

Keystroke capture meets teenager

Free keylogger software by IwantSoft
Free keylogger software by IwantSoft

My interest in all this got triggered in the early 2000’s, when I decided to do a review of some software that allowed anyone with access to a computer to capture the keystrokes of a user and store them in a file for viewing later. The software was targeted at employers, but parents were also a potential market — as an alternative to earlier “gatekeeping” software such as Net Nanny, which could be used to block certain websites from young children.

At the time, my oldest daughter — who was then about 13 — had been spending a lot of time talking with friends using Microsoft’s Instant Messenger, and I thought the software would allow me to eavesdrop a little bit on her conversations while also reviewing the software. I installed it as directed (it was just a driver that loaded before the keyboard driver, and stored all the information sent via the keys) and soon I was reading all of my daughter’s chat conversations.

For the most part, this was incredibly boring, I’m happy to say. Our daughter wasn’t the kind of troubled child who cried out for internet monitoring, so there was nothing outlandish like plans to meet up with some 35-year-old in Detroit. There was a lot of talk about boys and homework, and TV shows or books she liked. There wasn’t even any sign of “cyber-bullying,” which had become a big topic of conversation in the media, and which a niece of mine had been subjected to during her teenage years (another reason I was curious to try out the software).

A permanent loss of trust?

father daughter

The only thing remotely interesting that turned up was a conversation about smoking pot one night at a friend’s party. Since 13 seemed a little young to be encouraging that kind of behavior, my wife and I had a little chat with our daughter about the wisdom of that kind of activity — without telling her how we found out about it — and that was pretty much the end of it. Eventually, I stopped looking at the emailed chat logs that the software forwarded me (it would send them based on certain word triggers as well) and went back to not paying much attention to what my daughter did online.

After the discussion with my friend and fellow parent who was shocked about my invasion of our daughter’s privacy, I did tell our kids that we had ways of looking over their shoulders online (without going into too much detail) and that we wouldn’t hesitate to use these powers if necessary. Better to be vague, I thought, so that they wouldn’t know what we were capable of — another echo of the NSA’s approach.

Obviously, my daughters’ emotional turmoil and fondness for certain bands isn’t even remotely comparable to the dangers of terrorism, but the parallels with what the NSA does (and what American citizens allow it to do in their name) still seem pretty strong to me. I believed that what I was doing was justified because I wanted to protect my daughters from themselves — but in the end, I decided that the loss of trust was actually much worse than anything I was theoretically saving them from. Is there a lesson for the NSA in there?

Thursday: My surveillance program continues with our middle daughter, and I discover something unexpected about her.

Images courtesy of Shutterstock / Lightspring and Shutterstock / Denis Vrublevski