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When Apple introduced the Find My iPhone app three years ago, its aim was to help people locate their lost smartphones. But EJ Hilbert, a 43-year-old former FBI officer, had a better idea – installing the app on his three children’s devices, so that he could track them wherever they went.
“They have it on their phone and that’s the way it’s going to be,” says Mr Hilbert, whose day job is investigating cyber crime.
By adapting the Find My iPhone app, Mr Hilbert is part of a wider trend. Until recently technology gave power to the children. Now it is starting to give something back to the parents.
Yesterday’s parents did not know how to record their offspring’s favourite television programme. Today’s parents can record the child’s every move, email and purchase – with the help of a variety of new gadgets.
“There are huge opportunities for disruption,” says James Wise, a venture investor at Balderton Capital. “The challenge for entrepreneurs is to build something both the parents and their children want to use.”
For many parents, however, the priority is protecting their children from online pornography and bullying.
In the UK, all internet customers are to be asked by the end of next year if they want to activate pornography filters. TalkTalk, the first provider to have offered the filters, says that about one in three households activate the filter.
Parents worried about cyber bullying can go further. Dozens of software packages are available to install on desktops and mobiles to check children’s browsing history and read their emails and messages. By logging keystrokes, the programs can give parents access to sites and passwords.
“Up until 13 or 14, it should be common practice for parents to sit down and go through what their children have been looking at [online], and who they are talking to,” says psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair. “There is a whole new area requiring parental input, supervision and control.”
This kind of surveillance should be done openly, she says. Parents should explain that they will be watching their children’s online activities as a condition for handing over a laptop or smartphone.
Even so, that approach alarms some. “If very intrusive surveillance is deemed the norm during childhood, why would you ever expect privacy as an adult?” says Nick Pickles, director of Big Brother Watch, the privacy campaign group.
Under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, signed by the US and European countries, children have a right to privacy from their parents, though the extent depends on their maturity.
Parental surveillance technologies, which began with spy cameras hidden in teddy bears, have grown faster in the US than Europe. “There is a slight sense in America and increasingly the UK that, if you’ve got a problem, you should solve it with technology,” says Paul Bernal, a law lecturer at East Anglia University.
Even parents may find the result creepy, however. Mathew Ingram, a technology journalist, monitored his daughters’ online activities for nearly a decade. “I believed that what I was doing was justified because I wanted to protect my daughters from themselves,” he wrote recently. “In the end, I decided that the loss of trust was actually much worse than anything I was theoretically saving them from. ”
Older kids, too, are under closer surveillance. With insurance premiums for young drivers rising, more parents are looking to install telematics boxes in their cars to monitor how their children drive. The boxes monitor actions such as acceleration, cornering, average speed and time of day. The data are available to the insurer and the policyholder – who is often the parent.
“It’s inevitable that telematics will just be a normal thing for an under 25 to have,” says Charlotte Halkett of Insurethebox, which has about 50,000 parents with young drivers on its books.
Traditional insurers have also launched telematics policies. “It’s only going to grow,” says Paul Felton, head of telematics at Direct Line. “More people are willing to share data and receive something back for it. It’s all a trade-off.”
The possibilities need not stop there.
Tracking toddlers presents its own challenges. Sten Kirkbak was working in a telecommunications company when he lost sight of his son in a shopping centre: “It took a while for me to reflect on it, and even longer before I told my wife.” He came up with the idea of Filip, a smartwatch worn by children that tells parents where they are and allows voice calls. It has less functionality than a smartphone, which is the point of the device. “Approximately 70 per cent of parents in the US say they don’t want to buy their child a smartphone before the age of 12 or 13,” says Mr Kirkbak.
Filip has raised $10m and plans to go into production this year. Because GPS does not work indoors, the smartwatch needs to run on WiFi and mobile phone signal too, which will push up the cost. The device is expected to retail at up to $200, with a $20 monthly phone contract. But the big constraint is simplicity, rather than price, says Mr Kirkbak: “Everything has to be controlled from an app. Parents do not have time to read user manuals to control complex technology.”
Many parents would like an insight into a child’s school performance. ClassDojo, a US-based service, allows teachers to email frequent reports to parents on their child’s behaviour.
There is also parental interest in tracking how children spend their pocket money. Visa and MasterCard offer pre-paid debit cards that allow parents to see where their children have spent their money. This incarnation may not be foolproof. “If my parents gave me a pre-paid debit card to track my spending, the first thing I would do is buy another pre-paid debit card so they couldn’t,” jokes Jim McKelvey, co-founder of payments company Square.
As more payments shift online, the opportunities increase for parents to peer over their child’s shoulder.
But, as Mr McKelvey’s remarks highlight, children may try to outsmart the technology.
Snapchat, a messaging service where the photos and text self-destruct after 15 seconds, allows children to communicate away from parents’ gaze. Those who want to play truantwithout being tracked can give their phones to friends who are at school. Some children also have two Facebook profiles, and accept their parents as friends on just one of them.
The growth of parental surveillance is here to stay. “‘Won’t someone think of the children?’ is going to be a very potent marketing call for many years to come, as it has been for many years in the past,” says Mr Pickles.
There is only one problem. If it is becoming ever easier to track a family member’s movements online and offline, what’s to stop the kids monitoring their parents?