Surveillance Anyone?

As happens with some frequency, I was listening to a podcast and it got me thinking. It was Stay Tuned with Preet. Preet Bharara interviewed Nita Farahany, someone I had never heard of before but learned that she explores the intersection of law, neuroscience, and technology. She is a law professor at Duke University and has a PhD in philosophy. She has quite an impressive resumé (I looked it up).

They discussed the implications of emerging technologies in brain monitoring, as part of the larger issue of society’s increasing capacity for surveillance. During my first listening (yes, I listened more than once and you’ll understand why in a moment), I was outraged. Why? Because she said the following, “We have cameras in our kids’ bedrooms. Our oldest, who is now seven, she wouldn’t cry, she would look at the camera and wave….”  On first hearing that, I thought she was saying that they had still had a camera in their seven-year old’s bedroom. Most parents these days have baby monitors that include video, but I assumed once the child was able to climb out of bed and come to the parent’s bedroom, the monitoring device would be removed.

Would you find that outrageous, having a camera in a seven-year old’s room? I think children deserve to have some privacy. I don’t think they should be monitored 24/7 unless there are unusual circumstances. I believe we removed the baby monitor, it was limited to audio, from our child’s bedroom once they were out of the crib. Why wouldn’t the same notion apply to monitors that include video?

It is possible that I misunderstood what she said. She was making the point that children growing up today are accustomed to being watched. In the comment above she explained that by the time her daughter was one, she would wave at the camera to get her parents to come get her, she didn’t cry. For her it was normal to be watched in that way and that could have implications about how they felt about it as they got older.

Thinking that she was still surveilling her daughter with a camera, though, my immediate reaction was, “And you are an ethicist?!?” I then thought that I didn’t really want to hear the rest of what she had to say, and I turned it off.

Upon further reflection, I wondered if I heard right, perhaps I misunderstood. And then, as I thought more deeply about it, I wondered if, given the emphasis on security these days, if cameras in children’s bedrooms and throughout the house are common and are simply a given. If that is the case, what does that mean for privacy? Who is watching?

Recently when our daughter was pregnant and putting together her baby registry, she explained something to me that her brother, who’s child is now four, explained to her. When you buy a video monitor you can choose one that is wifi enabled or not. Our son and daughter-in-law selected one that was not, in other words it worked over a certain distance in a house but didn’t utilize the internet. Our daughter and son-in-law made the same choice, believing that it reduced the risk of being hacked or monitored by uninvited individuals. Our children face parenting decisions that we didn’t dream of. I don’t envy them.

Realizing that I may have misunderstood Dr. Farahany, I decided to listen to the entire podcast, and to replay the part that got me so angry. I was calmer and realized I may have leapt to a conclusion. I also realized that perhaps it wasn’t so crazy, though I stand by my belief that children deserve privacy, too.

I’m glad I listened. First, it was not clear that cameras were still in use in her older child’s room. I would love to ask her to clarify and hear her thoughts on the idea. Second, they discussed a lot of important subjects that we need to consider as science and technology evolve.

One area they discussed was use of brain monitoring on long-haul truckers, and this technology may not be limited to that job. We might agree that monitoring truck drivers’ level of alertness, which can be achieved using several different types of surveillance technologies, is a good thing since drowsy driving is the most frequent cause of accidents on our roadways. The issue gets stickier when you think about what other data might be collected along the way, who might have access to the data and how else it might be used. If we can be sure of the narrow use of the information, to inform the driver (and the employer?) that they are sleepy, then the intrusion on privacy is warranted. One can imagine a whole host of possible misuses of the information, though, especially if the monitoring isn’t limited to tracking wakefulness. And even in that limited application, what does it mean for employer/employee relations? Does the trucker get disciplined? Hopefully, these issues have been worked out before the technology was implemented. Sometimes that planning doesn’t happen, and the horse is out of the barn before the implications have been considered.

Privacy is a sensitive subject, especially when balanced against safety. In many areas of our lives, including in our own homes, we make calculations about what is more important to us. We are often willing to sacrifice privacy for security, but we need to be mindful of unintended consequences. And, like many things, we won’t all agree on the proper balance. It is an important conversation to have, especially as parents of young children.

How young is too young?

How young is too young?  Or put another way, what is the appropriate age for children to…..fill in the blank. As parents we were always debating these questions. To walk to a friend’s house by themselves; to ride their bike in the neighborhood alone; to cross the street; to see PG-13 movies; to wear make-up or get their ears pierced. So many decisions. There are no hard and fast rules, nor should there be.

My parents were permissive in this regard. I’ve touched on this before on my blog. I saw violent movies when I was quite young. I was allowed to read anything I wanted – I don’t recall ever being told to make a different choice when I went to the library with them or if I picked up a book that my older brother was reading. The only time my reading was limited was when I went to check out The Grapes of Wrath when I was in elementary school and the librarian told me it wasn’t appropriate. I vaguely remember arguing with her briefly before giving up.

Some of those parenting decisions are influenced by where you live and what the norms are in the area. Certainly, growing up in New York City is different than growing up in suburban Albany where my children were raised. Of course, technology has changed things, too. Our kids were in middle school before some of the social media issues started to emerge.

Generally, Gary and I were on the same page with these decisions. We agreed that our children would not have a television or computer in their bedroom (this was before laptops, i-pads or smart phones; they were in high school before that became an issue). We wouldn’t buy Eminem’s CD for Dan (he was ten when the Slim Shady LP came out), no matter how much he begged. We knew he heard the music at friends’ houses, but we wanted to be clear that we weren’t sanctioning it. It wasn’t the language we were concerned about, it was the misogyny and casual treatment of sex and violence.

We may have made some errors in judgment, but at least we made them together! One example of what may have been poor decision-making involved Daniel. Daniel was born with a certain skepticism. He never bought into fairies or magical thinking. He was on to the fact that we left money under his pillow when he lost a tooth; he never went for the idea of a tooth fairy. Though it wasn’t part of our tradition, he never believed in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny either. Out of respect for friends, family and neighbors, we never taught our children that there wasn’t a Santa, we simply told them that we didn’t celebrate those holidays. Unfortunately, Dan came to his own conclusion before some of our friends’ children and he shared his ideas (not to be cruel, he thought they already knew). That led to some awkwardness.

Knowing that his skepticism led him to have a mature sense of humor at a young age, we let him watch a George Carlin HBO Special when he was ten or eleven. I knew the humor would appeal to him and it did. But, I think it was too much too soon. In retrospect, we should have encouraged more innocent comedy. I don’t think it helped Dan’s anxiety level to hear Carlin’s cynicism and biting observations so young, even if we all laughed and appreciated his skewering of the establishment.

Though we were almost always in agreement in our parenting decisions, there was one specific time that Gary and I were not on the same page. We had agreed that we would not pierce Leah’s ears as a baby. We wanted it to be her decision. By the time Leah was eight, she was asking to get earrings. Dan was born skeptical; Leah was born headstrong. She was quite persistent. I explained that she needed to be more mature so that she would follow the instructions for the care of her ear lobes and to be sure that it wasn’t a passing fancy. That explanation bought me some time, but by the time she was ten, she was convinced that she was ready. I thought she probably was; Gary didn’t.

One evening we were at the mall. Leah was nearing 12 at this point and I had been putting her off in terms of the earrings. Dan and Gary went to look for something while Leah and I went in another direction. We agreed to meet up at a certain time. As Leah and I were walking, we passed a kiosk that offered ear piercing. Leah stopped and asked me again. I took a deep breath and made an executive decision that she was mature enough. The woman did it quickly, with a minimum of fuss. Leah handled the pain without much reaction. She was proud of herself and excited.

We met back up with the boys. When Leah showed Gary the small gold posts in her ear lobes, he was furious. I hadn’t expected such an extreme reaction. When Gary is angry, he retreats; his silence is more penetrating than harsh words. At first, he was mad at Leah too, but he let go of that in a reasonable amount of time. Most of his fury was reserved for me. He may not be over it yet (20 years later).

Looking back at it, if that was the worst of our differences in parenting styles, that’s pretty damn good. That isn’t to say we didn’t have other arguments, but at least not about those issues.

It will be interesting to watch the next generation navigate their parenting path.