Friday, September 18, 2009

Surveilance Raised to the Second Power

The following article appear about a week ago over the AP business wire. It turns out that parents who "spy" on their children may be unwittingly helping corporations to spy on them too. It's very valuable to folks in marketing to know what kids are talking about. If you believe the companies that make/sell the child surveillance software to parents, the information being collected is not associated with the kids' names but it is tagged with information about the kid (ironically, often entered by the parent when s/he sets the software up in the first place).

One easy take-away is the idea that norms about spying on kids are highly dependent on who is doing the spying and why. If you have legal custody of the kid and you are trying to protect her from predators, spy away. If you are a commercial entity who wants to listen in to the kids' chats, you're crossing the line.

Bunch of sociology of information questions emerge in what looks in the article to be real mishmosh of thinking about this phenomenon. We see talk of "targeting children" (by marketers), "putting the children's information at risk" (not really sure what that means), legal issues of collecting data from kids and having parents' permission implied if software is installed, and so on. What doesn't get thematized is that this is yet another example of trading a service for your information. In pure economic terms it can be written off as an exchange, that, if people do it, must be identifying an equivalence in value (as in, "it's worth it to me to play this game at the cost of the provider can observe what kind of music I like"). In fact, though, I suspect that these dimensions of value are more orthogonal than is being pretended. It works because of multiple slights of hand -- one isn't really sure what information one is giving up or what is happening to it or one doesn't get to evaluate those questions until after certain commitments have been made or it's just plain too complicated to find out.

Look for another post soon about FaceBook applications and quizzes and the kinds of information give-aways and grab-ups that they involve.

Web-monitoring software gathers data on kid chats

* By DEBORAH YAO, AP Business Writer - Fri Sep 4, 2009 5:16PM EDT

Parents who install a leading brand of software to monitor their kids' online activities may be unwittingly allowing the company to read their children's chat messages — and sell the marketing data gathered.

Software sold under the Sentry and FamilySafe brands can read private chats conducted through Yahoo, MSN, AOL and other services, and send back data on what kids are saying about such things as movies, music or video games. The information is then offered to businesses seeking ways to tailor their marketing messages to kids.

"This scares me more than anything I have seen using monitoring technology," said Parry Aftab, a child-safety advocate. "You don't put children's personal information at risk." [Read More...]

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

The "Is More Information Always Better?" File

Monica Davey's article "Case Shows Limits of Sex Offender Alert Programs" in the NYT (2 Sept 2009)raises a number of interesting sociology of information issues.

The basic story is that sex offender registration policies did not seem to do much good in the case of a California man found out last week to have kidnapped a young girl and held her for 19 years in his back yard. The alleged perpetrator was a registered sex offender, reported regularly to a parole officer, and wore a GPS tracking device, and law enforcement officials had visited and looked around his home.

It is, I think, a bit of a red herring to argue that this case shows a weakness of the registry system as it exists. But the conversation does point to some important issues about the mechanisms by which we expect "public information" to produce "public goods."

So what are the questions here? The most obvious one, expressed in general terms, is how much prevention does tracking actually provide? Another is whether or not the zealous inclusion of every minor sex-related offense (the article cites, as an example, a one-time flasher) over-taxes law enforcement and blinds society to "the real problems." A proponent of registries who was quoted in the article said
“Look, nobody ever suggested that registering sex offenders is going to remove sex offenders from the planet, but let’s at least make sure they’re not working in your elementary school or coaching the soccer team.”
I don't think the research is entirely clear as to whether the law accomplishes this or not, but it points to an interesting question. The registries are online and searchable, with the idea that this amounts to information empowerment that keeps state officials accountable -- a kind of open-government move: if the official don't do their job, the public will find out. But, of course, "the public" suffers from the same information overload that police departments do. Knowing that there are 1500 registered sex offenders in your county may not be all that helpful in terms of making decisions about where to live, send your kids to school or how high a fence to build around your pool. Some "experts" say we should make some distinctions and prioritize rather than lumping teenage sex in the same category as a violent rape and kidnapping. But that raises 5he challenging problem of where to draw the line. I'll bet the equilibrium in that game is always over on the side of TMI -- too much information to be really useful. In other words, most collectives would opt for more information than they can "make sense of" even if it means they will "see" less than if they had less information.