Modern field guide to security and privacy
People attend the YouTube festival in Indonesia.
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When mom becomes Big Brother

new thinking

What are the tools and tricks of internet tracking in the home, and why building a domestic surveillance state is worth it for one family.

I am Big Brother. I run a surveillance program the likes of which George Orwell could have only dreamed of. I have a minute-by-minute account of how my subjects spend their time, and an iron grip on their sources of information. With a single switch, I can cut off access to the outside world.

My dominion consists of a single home, and I have only two subjects: My 13-year-old daughter and my 10-year-old son. But even Kim Jong-un would be daunted by the effort it takes to contain and manage my children’s access to the internet.

It’s not that I want to deprive my kids of internet access. Nor am I particularly worried about online predators or cyberbullies: We've spent a lot of time talking with the kids about how to stay safe online, and they alert us whenever they run into the slightest bit of online hostility.

It’s precisely because we’re a family of online enthusiasts that I have set up a system that allows my kids to enjoy plenty of time online, without worrying that their online enthusiasms will get out of hand.

That's particularly important in the case of my 10-year-old, who would probably spend 24 hours a day watching YouTube or playing video games if I didn’t set up technologies to limit his access.

Yes, I could enforce our family tech agreement the old-fashioned way, by sitting beside him every moment he’s online, or taking away his computer when he violates the rules. But our son finds it easier to cope with a "time's up!" message on his computer than a "time's up!" message from his mother. So, parental restriction tools dramatically reduce the frequency and intensity of our screen time conflicts.

Thanks to my son's boundary pushing and the sheer volume of devices in our home, our parental restrictions setup requires constant refinement. On a typical week, I need to tweak some aspect of our parental restrictions settings nearly every day.

That may sound like a hassle, but it's easier to spend five minutes a day tweaking the technology than 30 minutes arguing over what is or isn't allowed … and it's a lot better than spending an entire evening helping a kid finish an overdue project that they neglected while playing a limitless amount of Minecraft!

Here’s what the job of managing parental restrictions looked like on one recent week.

Sunday

As part of my preparation for an upcoming business trip, I review our household restrictions to make sure everything will work in my absence. We've recently purchased a Circle, a Disney-branded gadget that lets us manage all our devices from a single iPhone app; each family member has a profile specifying which websites they have access to, how much time they have on different sites, and what time of day their internet access switches off.

I also set up separate profiles for "living room" (to manage what the kids can watch on our home media server) and "bedroom" (to manage our smart TV). I configure the bedroom TV to block Netflix in the mornings, so my husband doesn't have to worry about the kids disappearing into our bedroom when they should be getting ready for school. Then I make a bold move: I log into our account with OpenDNS, a tool that lets us control the web content coming into the home. 

We’ve used OpenDNS to block YouTube for the past three years, but with Circle in place, I’m ready to switch YouTube back on. Now, I can give each kid an individual YouTube "allowance," using Circle to set a daily time limit. And hey! Circle means I don’t need to use parental restrictions on their individual computers, so I switch off the bedtime and website limits.

Monday

I land in Atlanta and I’m greeted by a text message from my husband. He's wondering how our son has been able to watch YouTube for the past two hours. It turns out that our little guy circumvented the time limit by getting into his dad’s iPhone and changing the Circle settings.

From my seat on the airport train, I use the Circle app to switch off YouTube on my son’s profile. I experience all the satisfaction of bringing down the hammer, with the added joy of knowing I’m a thousand miles away from the ensuing meltdown.

Tuesday

To prevent another Circle circumvention, my husband and I both set up Apple's biometric TouchID for the Circle apps on our phones. Now the kids can’t get in and mess with the settings.

Wednesday

When I wake up at 7 a.m., I discover my son has been playing Minecraft for the past 2 hours: I guess turning off bedtime on his computer was not a good idea. I turn parental restrictions back on, so that he can only use his computer between 4 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. on weekdays.

In the afternoon, my daughter complains that 30 minutes of daily YouTube time doesn’t give her enough access to the arts and crafts videos that teach her new origami techniques. That seems like a great use of YouTube, so I take the time limits off her YouTube access.

Thursday

My daughter's teacher mentions that she's behind on several assignments. When I get home, I lower the boom: I’m restricting her online game time. She's been lobbying for us to unblock Minecraft servers – in fact, the reason we got the Circle was so that we could provide time-limited access to servers instead of the on-or-off option provided by OpenDNS.

I tell her that the time limits on gaming will allow me to restore access to some Minecraft servers … as soon as she’s had a few good weeks of reliable homework completion.

Friday

When I get a "site blocked" message on my computer, I look at my Circle settings: Apparently our son knocked my Circle permissions down to "Pre-K" before we locked down the app. I restore myself to adult status, and once again have full access to the internet.

Saturday

Our son wakes us up to say he’s on the phone with tech support. He was downloading a new Minecraft feature when he got a pop-up message saying his computer has a virus, and that he needed to call that number.

We realize he’s fallen for an online scam, so we tell him to hang up the phone. Then we interrogate him so we know exactly how much information he handed over: Apparently we got lucky, because the "tech support" operator asked our son to get his parents on the line. 

We use call display to figure out what number he called, and then Google the number to find out which particular online scam it's associated with. We run antivirus software on his computer to scan for any new issues (much to our relief, there’s no sign of infection), and we look at his browser history to find the URL that triggered the pop-up. Then I block that site using OpenDNS, which I use to manage our home network.

Sunday

My husband and I sleep until 11. It’s the kind of thing that's possible when you are willing to give your kids a big dose of screen time – and when you have the parental restrictions in place that ensure the screen time won’t get too crazy while you’re sleeping.

Yes, it’s taken some daily fidgeting to keep our restrictions tech working, but it all feels worthwhile when I wake up after ten hours of uninterrupted sleep.

Yes, we have found a combination of software, hardware, and policies that allow us to exert some influence over our kids’ online habits, and in particular, to curtail excessive game time. And yes, implementing these limits through tech tools somewhat reduces the frequency and intensity with which our kids push back against their digital confinement.

But in 10 years, I hope my kids will have grown into the kinds of adults who do push back against digital confinement, who engage with technology creatively, and find their way around online constraints. Our domestic surveillance program may turn out to be the perfect preparation for that kind of independence, if it provides a safe place to test the limits – and often break – persistent digital boundaries.

Security Culture

This journalism empowers people to understand the bigger picture of cybersecurity as it connects to some of the most personal parts of their lives: their job, their education, the evolving digital culture around them, and the technology they use on a day-to-day basis. As part of the Monitor’s overarching commitment to chronicling human progress, we see these very human issues within cybersecurity to be critical and overlooked parts of the conversation.

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