Saturday, July 30, 2011

Boomers, Should You Use Gadgets to Spy on Loved Ones?

Recently, here in my home state of New Jersey, an appeals court ruled that it was just fine for a woman to put a GPS tracking device in the couple’s jointly owned car to spy on her spouse.  A N.J. court also ruled that police can use cell phone signals to track suspects without having to get a warrant.

Both cases, in my mind, are two sides of the same coin. Most of the mobile gadgets we use today have the ability to pinpoint their locations.  In addition, you can buy lots of cameras and gadgets that do the same thing, like monitor car use for teens, for example. The question is: should you take advantage of these capabilities and use them to spy on your significant others or your children?

The idea for this blog post came in part from a newsletter article by my colleague,  J.Gerry Purdy of MobileTrax, who discussed his negative reaction to an ad from Brick House Security “offering a number of different hardware and software products clearly designed and being sold to people who want to spy on their spouse, kids or significant others.”  Gerry doesn’t recommend spying in the least. He calls it “intent to gather information without the other person’s consent,” and an invasion of privacy.  

He says that if your relationship is “tenuous or, even worse, on the rocks, I recommend you talk about it rather than resort to using spyware. It basically gets down to building your own self-esteem and trusting in your relationship, so that you don’t worry about with whom your spouse is communicating or meeting.”

I have to agree, although I think there are exceptions to this rule. Would you read your kid’s diary or journal? I never did, if they even had a diary. I was adamant about letting them keep private things private. Yet, if I had suspected drug use or other harmful, illegal or life threatening activity, I probably would have violated my own rule. They knew that I would not spy and that I expected responsibility on their part in return.  Of course, I did look at any papers that were left open for all to see on computers. I wasn't a saint.

Yet, in this day and age, I don’t fault parents who put tracking and limiting software on their children’s computers as many police and school officials suggest. I have a friend who monitors her daughter’s computer use closely, and I understand that she is afraid of the predators out there and not sure about her daughter’s judgments. 

However, my friend’s daughter knows that her computer is being watched. She’s been informed that her mom will read her text messages too. She is not being spied on per se, because she knows she is being monitored. Yet I worry if monitoring too closely will create a person who cannot make significant judgments about right and wrong. Like the high school kid who has never taken a sip of wine and then goes to college, only to over indulge in alcohol, will kids who are sheltered from the dangers of the internet be able to cope when restrictions are taken away?

As to police reading texts and emails, I have mixed feelings. I’ve always wondered why electronic communications like email, texting and wireless phone calls are not subject to the same stringent protection of privacy requirements as are land lines and “snail mail,” but they are not. It’s a Federal offense for someone to open your postal mail. It’s not for someone to open your email. (I've been called to task here. Apparently, under some circumstances it CAN be a federal offense! Lawyers out there, please correct me.)  If illegal activity is transacted via postal mail, the police would need a warrant to open it. In the case of a civil case, they would need a subpoena. Both of these are difficult to obtain, protecting people against misuse. Yet with email, the police can start and build investigations with fewer hurdles.

This distinction makes it easier for police to track illegal activity being carried out by texting and over cell phones. And it makes it easy for court cases to hinge on emails that were sent.  All of that seems like an invasion of privacy to me, whatever the legal reasoning behind it.

My colleague Gerry Purdy says that using spyware destroys trust in relationships. “On some level everyone has experienced the destruction of trust in a relationship. I can tell you from experience that it’s better to have an open and trusting relationship than to destroy trust with gadgets.”

Along with Gerry, I urge you to “Use mobile technologies to build relationships not destroy them.”

My thanks to Gerry Purdy for his inspiration for this post.


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