‘NSA Parent’: Writer Details His Decade of Spying on His Children Online

You've heard of "tiger moms," "helicopter parents," and "soccer moms," but writer Mathew Ingram is what I'm going to call an "NSA parent." In part two of a series on keeping tabs on your children's online activities ("Snooping on your kids: what I learned about my daughter, and how it changed our relationship"), Ingram details his decade-long surveillance of his three daughters' online activities.

Putting aside the debate over whether parents should monitor their children 24/7, Ingram details what he learned about his first daughter and how it helped him have a better relationship with her in the long run. Much to his delight, she wasn't online talking to friends about doing drugs (only once or twice, according to Ingram) all the time, or setting up a meeting with older men over Skype or ICQ; she was spending her days hanging out on Habbo Hotel (before sexual predators decided to make it their favorite place to hang out and talk to kids), 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," writes Ingram. " 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."

Later he realized that his daughter regularly visited Gaia Online, where she often wrote interactive fiction with other members.

"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," wrote Ingram. "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."

Later in the article he admits all this surveillance made him feel conflicted, because, while he was looking for all the bad things his daughter might be getting involved in online, he uncovered something he hadn't expected: she was very creative.

"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?"

In the third part he promises to explain why he gave up on the practice of spying on his youngest daughter. In part one he admitted that "If the NSA’s tools were available, I probably would have used them."

In a way, Ingram's story illustrates the precarious balance between "protection" and "privacy" that governments and spy agencies have wrestled with in the same way in the name of combating terrorism. In fact, this series of articles was partly inspired by the recent leaks on the NSA's vast spying operations at home and abroad…

You can read part one here and part two here.

"Confidential Rubber Stamp," © 2013 Jason Winter | Shutterstock

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