The circuit board of a laptop.

What are the ethical implications of consumer spyware for parents?

Consumer spyware can be accessed with the push of a button and could have damaging implications for its victims.

No longer ‘behind closed doors’, consumer spyware allows notions of privacy to move outside the home and into the digital world.

This technology is easily accessible, allowing victims to become even more targeted through monitoring and data collecting apps.

While this software is ‘emerging’ more now, it isn’t new; the ethical conversation is just now being pushed to the surface.

A person's hands using an iphone.

As showcased by Deakin University researchers, Dr. Adam Molnar and Dr. Diarmaid Harkin’s recently launched report, The Consumer Spyware Industry: An Australian-based Analysis of the Threats of Consumer Spyware.

The report aims to unpack the threat of consumer spyware and the ramifications for family and domestic violence as well as the broader threat to telecommunications privacy and the integrity of digital communications.

Consumer spyware as ‘protection’ in the home

For many, a home is a safe, comfortable place. However, this begins to transform as the privacy of its victims can now be invaded through spyware technology. The capabilities of consumer spyware are wide, expansive and most importantly, harmful.

At their recent launch, Dr. Harkin said, these spyware products allow users to engage in “tech facilitated abuse” whether that be enacted against a partner, family member or in the focus of this article, child.

In a time of direct messages and Tinder, parents are becoming increasingly concerned about their child’s safety.

Consumer spyware companies aren’t afraid to capitalise on this; with these products frequently advertised to parents who are concerned about the online behaviour of their youth.

A young girl listening to music on her Apple Macbook with her iphone resting next to her.

Dr. Harkin adds, “Almost unanimously spyware companies suggested that spyware should be used against children. That was the most ‘legitimate’ form of use. It is very often pitched as a thing that ‘good’ parents do.”

Attempts to monitor online activity seems reasonable and is often done so under the guise of protection. Dr. Harkin encourages us to think harder about the implications, he argues “the functionality of this spyware and the amount of data it captures is inherently abusive.”

While consumer spyware is also targeted to intimate partner relationships to effectively spy on your significant other, it is important to note that this is not the only relationship this spyware can intrude in upon. Parents are clearly being targeted to use spyware intended for malicious purposes, on their child.

Ethical considerations

If a parent were to walk into their child’s room and read their personal journal, many would view this as an invasion of privacy. However, isn’t accessing this spyware to look at text messages or search histories the same, it is just being mediated in a different way?

It then calls into question what ethical means are involved in surveilling loved one’s if our culture has normalised the digital-based stream of thought. The processes of using spyware to pertain information also have negative implications for the “fate of their confidential data”.

A row of security cameras on a grey, brick wall.

In an era of laptops instead of notebooks and interactive whiteboards, it is difficult to ignore the possibility of school-based monitoring. Not only do these spaces provide a way to monitor, but they also provide a way to share sensitive content on a mass and long-lasting scale.

At the recent launch, Dr. Harkin and the panel discussed how these measures of school surveillance may be more invasive than previously assumed. They mentioned a recent incident in NZ where students’ had their computer files wiped after a school-mandated software update.

It seems here, that the idea of the children as still humans with the right to their information and autonomy is often overlooked.

This is not to say that educational institutions are using spyware, but to show how, as Dr. Harkin expresses there are “clearly socio-cultural forces at play which changes these norms and expectations of what is private and the scale of data that is allowed to be permissibly accessed.”

“It is interesting to keep vigilant watch of that relationship between parent and child as this technology gives parents more and more opportunity how many parents will take it…and what sorts of ramifications that will have.”

Seeking safety

The threat that consumer spyware technology poses can’t be ignored, we can’t continue to let this manipulate the way parenting is conducted.

Children’s personal safety and privacy is paramount, despite the capabilities of this technology suggesting otherwise.

Dr. Harkin says, “Hopefully this hasn’t been too much of doomsday talk about spyware.”

Two young children taking a photo on their iphone outside a theme park.

He addresses that with everything, while there might not be a full-proof way to protect your privacy, there are precautions you can take that don’t mean throwing your phones in the bin entirely.

In offering suggestions to improve safety, Dr. Harkin says that we might like to “remember that children have the right to their own privacy”, which parents may like to consider if they are looking to use this spyware.

“This isn’t a lost cause there are practical things we can do to reduce this problem and address it” to protect victims of spyware including women, non-binary people, and children.

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