A Parent’s Story: Mediating Personal Devices and Privacy

Decorative ImageI must admit, I’m a bit paranoid about all the video cameras we let into our homes and personal lives: my cell phone has a video camera, my iPad has one, my 2 laptops both have built-in video cameras, our Xbox, my kid’s iPods, their Nintendo 3Ds–my husband’s phone and laptop. What’s more, we have these in some of our most personal spaces at times–living rooms, bedrooms, etc. I know lots of people are merrily buying “smart TVs” with built-in video functions as well. As long as I’m the one in control of the outgoing content and what’s captured, and when it’s captured, I felt complacent about this tech–it was benign. Content wouldn’t go “out” unless I sent it. However, in the wrong hands these devices aren’t just a “push technology” (me sending out content) anymore.

What made me paranoid? I have seen and heard examples of web-enabled video cameras being hacked remotely–even for ‘official’ purposes.  I don’t like the idea that someone could remotely access anyone of my video-enabled devices and activate the camera from the other end–thereby virtually entering spaces I’m assuming are private. How paranoid am I? Well, this post from  May 2010, “Why I Wanted a Do-It-Yourself Anti-Sky Shade for My Built-In Webcam” https://jhengstler.wordpress.com/2010/05/ was only slightly tongue and cheek. I have in truth put a cover on the video lens of the few of laptops I use in the bedroom when working or writing. I don’t own a smart TV with built in video & won’t–unless I make another cover for its lens. I’m a bit more complacent about tech in more “public” areas of the house.  Last night, though,  I lay in bed reading on my iPad thinking about its embedded video camera and what angle it might give of my bedroom. I use it to read a lot–maybe it’s time I hack a cover for that video camera as well. (Next on my to-do list.) I thought about my Xbox camera in the living room–still not sure about that one.

So what does this have to do with my family? I haven’t really discussed my video camera phobia with them, but today I started the “device privacy” discussion with my youngest son. I have some clear privacy boundaries with regard to my personal devices–some of which I’ve learned the hard way. If I hand my cellphone to others to check out the newest great app I’ve found, a pic of a fabulous sunrise, or a snippet of text–I have clear expectations that folks will not take this as free license to range through my device. This understanding is NOT mutual. My first experience that others don’t share this boundary was when I was running my first Art & Tech workshop for VIU incorporating an iOS device. I hadn’t yet gotten  departmental funding for iPods or iPads, but had been experimenting at home and found an art app that got me thinking about generative art, apps, and technology. In fact it spurred this November 2010 post  “Images Made with Art Interactives: Are They ‘Art’ ?” https://jhengstler.wordpress.com/2010/11/11/images-made-with-art-interactives-are-they-%E2%80%98art%E2%80%99/ . What I didn’t say in November 2010, is that when I first passed the Arcs21 app around for the Faculty of Education students to see–before I had the ability to project the image directly on a screen–I literally passed my iPhone around the class with the app running. I’m fairly stringent about shutting down apps not in use, so the only app running when I sent the iPhone around was Arcs21. When the phone made it back to me, it was clear that someone thought it was a bright idea to go rifling through my phone apps and content–maybe several “someones”. Those were the days when it was still a parlor trick to show people all the apps they had open and how to close them. The crowd wasn’t savvy enough to readily open and close the apps at that point in time. When the iPhone circulated back to me and I went to close the Arcs21 app, I could see other apps open. I immediately discussed with the class my expectation that when I handed them my device to look at one thing-Arcs21-I didn’t expect to find them roaming about all my other content. I told them,

“It’s like when I invite you over my house. You come in–maybe sit in the living room and chat. If I get up to do something–or you head for the bathroom–I don’t expect to discover you in my bedroom rummaging through my underwear drawer or the medicine cabinet in my bathroom. In good conscience, you wouldn’t expect to do that. The same goes for my phone.”

We need to put personal boundaries on the personal devices we physically share with others when and as appropriate. We need to establish behavioural norms that allow us to “granularize” the content we share–even if it’s not directly online. Today many sites and services have embedded ways to share different types of content with different people in different ways–this granularization of access has evolved over time. When you hand over your device, it’s a whole other ball game. The issue first surfaced for us as a family with regard to the privacy of text messages. My husband had been guilty of reading my texts without permission–nothing juicy I assure you–that I objected to on moral grounds. His initial defense was “I’m sure you’ve read mine” but I told him I don’t read them without his spoken permission. His next defense was, “Well, you can read mine anytime.” I told him that while that might be OK for him, for me that was boundary crossing.  We agreed to not read each others’ texts without spoken permission. My kids have attempted to read texts on my husband’s phone and my phone on different occasions –or read over our shoulders as texts come in or go out.  My sons’ have attempted to read each others’ texts. While we have recently employed passwords as a privacy strategy, the devices at home are not always “locked”. Further, I don’t think a “lock” should be the only cue that people are entitled to a certain level of privacy on their devices. According the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child Article 16 (http://www.google.ca/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=2&ved=0CEYQFjAB&url=http%3A%2F%2Fchildrenandyouthprogramme.info%2Fpdfs%2Fpdfs_uncrc%2Funcrc_summary_version.pdf&ei=QbKTUrfkD43voASt3IGIBA&usg=AFQjCNFjEy04VbliT77-l1TRrZPMcgNbWQ&sig2=RirjvDF5KeKfspSzb4D8-w&bvm=bv.57127890,d.cGU&cad=rja ), kids have a right to privacy as well. Together, my husband, and I have stated :

“In our house, we don’t read other people’s texts without their spoken permission.”

My kids know that if they receive permission, they are able to read specific texts/threads–may even send texts on our behalf. In fact, on long hauls where I’m driving and trying to stay in touch with someone, I may designate one of my kids as the surrogate reader/texter.  They know that they may not send texts from another person’s device without spoken permission. I’m also trying to remind them to identify themselves if texting on my behalf like:

“Hi, Auntie. Mom’s driving–she can call soon. [Name Here.]”

This morning, my youngest son (YS) was sharing his iPod unbeknownst to me with a group of girls–2 well known to him and peers, and another who is just an acquaintance and a few years older. When I noticed, I asked why the girls had his iPod. My son said he was letting the girls play a game on it. I said, “Do you make sure to tell them if they are playing an app, they shouldn’t be looking at your texts or pictures or other things on your iPod?” He said no. I reinforced with him when he shares a device, it is very important to tell people  what they are allowed to look at or use on his device.

YS replied, “But Mom, I was right there–watching them the whole time.” Nonetheless, I told him that watching or no–he needs to say what people are allowed to do–or things they are allowed to see when physically sharing his device.

Why should I care? Well, let’s dial this forward about 6-8 years when my youngest is a teen. Imagine the devastation an innocent “let me see that app” could generate with a friend who discovers something “funny”–some other content resident on the device that my son wanted to keep private–and then the friend makes it public through texts, tweets, or facebook! The friend might have never had bad intentions–intentions of harming my son–but it could happen nonetheless. If my son is explicit about his privacy boundaries, I’m sure this could still happen, but I believe it would happen far less. I also think that having to make this statement might make my son consider who he’s handing his device to–and how much he trusts them with the content on his device.

We need to be aware of the way technology facilitates communication. It does a fabulous job of that.  As a consequence, though, it can expose areas of our lives to potential scrutiny in ways we have not imagined or fully thought through. In some cases, we don’t yet have established norms of behaviour for use of these technologies–or established privacy boundaries. We need to establish our privacy boundaries with devices, content, and access early, and we also need to practice privacy-respecting behaviours–it’s a great form of digital hygiene and personal development.

What are your privacy boundaries? What do you do with your kids to support privacy and device use?

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