Types of surveillance

Children and youth who use the Internet are highly attuned to surveillance practices. [1] Research conducted by MediaSmarts demonstrates that for young Canadians surveillance is part of everyday life. While youth once considered the Internet to be a private space where they and their peers could play, communicate, and experiment, these attitudes have largely disappeared: on the contrary, youth now regard the Internet as a completely monitored space. [2] This surveillance of youth is primarily conducted by parents, teachers/schools, and corporations.

As mobile phones and other devices increase the ability to connect to the Internet from everywhere, traditional monitoring techniques such as placing the computer in a family room no longer allows parents to see what their children are doing online. As a result, many parents are using technology to monitor their children as well as requiring their children to share their passwords or “friend” them on social network sites. [3]

Due to this emerging market, a number of companies have developed programs that monitor young people’s activities online (some companies also market these types of software to suspicious spouses, or to adults who feel that they need help to avoid or resist accessing pornography or other types of online material [4]). Once installed on a computer, the various versions of surveillance software can capture complete browser history (including “private” browsing such as Google Chrome’s “incognito” or Internet Explorer’s “InPrivate” feature), chat or IM transcripts, emails, and passwords to sites. The completely covert functionality of the programs is also a commonly advertised feature, as programs claim to be invisible to users of the computer.

Online monitoring software providers, such as PC Tattletale and CyberPatrol, flood parents with a number of claims about the dangers of the Internet:

  • Who’s Protecting Your Child From Internet Predators, Pedophiles, Cyber Stalkers, Online Sex Offenders When You’re Not There? [5]
  • Many kids don’t tell their parents what they do online. They give out their personal information to people they don’t know. They’re stalked by predators in chat rooms and social networking sites. They’re cyber bullied by other kids. They visit web sites that contain content you don’t want them to see. They download files that are illegal or harmful to your PC. [6]

The claims also serve to construct youth as vulnerable and naïve, requiring adult protection and supervision at all times so as to avoid danger and victimization. The monitoring software is then presented to parents as a way to minimize the risks their children face online:

  • Just imagine if you could look over your child’s shoulder any time you wanted. Simply knowing that your invisible presence could be there would certainly make your adolescent think twice before venturing into the dark corners of the Internet. By monitoring the Internet activity of your children you’d be better able to make decisions about what websites and programs they regularly use. [7]

Parents are being told that failing to surreptitiously monitor their children’s online activities makes them irresponsible. As a result, “invading children’s privacy is now an imperative of good parenting”. [8]

Surveillance of online activities is also a reality for young Canadians while they are at school. In part because of the fears about cyberbullying at schools today, all conversations are treated as though they are risky or dangerous, and are therefore often monitored.

Despite the claims of monitoring software companies and the pervasive beliefs that surveillance is necessary, parental and school/teacher surveillance can have a number of negative effects on youth. Rather than encourage autonomy, this sort of intensive monitoring can instead develop heteronomy, the inability to judge right and wrong without outside restrictions. While autonomous youth are able to distinguish between right and wrong and make independent decisions, heteronymous youth are motivated by consequences: for example, autonomous children are more likely to believe that they should not lie because lying is wrong, while heteronymous children generally believe that lying is wrong only when there are negative consequences. [9] By monitoring Internet use, parents and teachers fail to allow for the development of autonomy. These monitoring techniques may also lead youth to believe that behaviour is only inappropriate if they are caught doing it, resulting in the development of strategies to evade monitoring. A better strategy is to allow youth the opportunity to communicate, and then provide avenues for correction or learning if and when they act inappropriately.

Additionally, surveillance creates an environment that leads to distrust, particularly when it comes to parental surveillance. Monitoring youths’ online activities (especially when done covertly) demonstrates to the youth that they are not trusted. By monitoring youth at all times, even with the best of intentions, Tonya Rooney argues that parents and guardians deprive “children of the opportunity to be trusted and to learn about trusting others, and the opportunity for growing competence and capacity that can result from this”. [10] When it comes to avoiding risk and fostering trust, children and youth must be considered as partners in the process, instead of simply being controlled through surveillance. [11]

Constant surveillance also hinders youths’ ability to identify and manage a multitude of potentially harmful situations. Youth who are denied exposure to certain risks, experiences, or situations may not have the developmental or cognitive abilities to recognize risk or harm as they mature. [12] Surveillance, by invading privacy, limiting free speech, and reducing opportunities to develop autonomy and independence, also has negative effects on spontaneity, creativity, and productivity. [13]

Furthermore, research has demonstrated that, far from being vulnerable and naïve as monitoring software companies would lead us to believe, youth have developed a number of techniques and strategies to avoid being surveilled and manage potentially harmful situations. For example, a number of young Canadians indicated that they immediately click away from sites that they feel are inappropriate, actively avoid interacting with “creeps”, and remain cautious about revealing any personal information. [14] These strategies demonstrate autonomous behaviour, which can only be developed through working and communicating with youth about their online activities, and further empowering them to make smart decisions while browsing.

Despite the negative impacts that constant surveillance has on young people’s socialization and development, many young Canadians have accepted the same narrative about risk and danger online. [15] While youth note that they view parental and school efforts at monitoring them annoying or useless, they agree that their parents are acting in their best interests – perhaps because young Canadians also believe many of the prevalent myths about Internet risks, primarily the exaggerated fears of stranger danger.

While the surveillance conducted by parents, teachers, and schools is intended to protect children, youth are also frequently subject to surveillance by the corporations that own and control the digital tools and environments they use. This surveillance is less noticeable, as it is done unobtrusively as Internet users travel from site to site.        

In simple terms, economic surveillance is the “collection, storage, assessment, and commodification of personal data, usage behaviour, and user-generated data for economic purposes”. [16] The data collected is marketed to corporations and advertisers as a detailed record of social connections and consumer patterns. These corporations then use the information to personalize ads or decide where to open new outlets, for example.

As such, one of the most obvious examples of the outcomes of economic surveillance is behavioural advertising. Behavioural advertising is intended to create a more personalized Internet browsing experience, by presenting ads that are tailored to individual interests: for example, if a Facebook user “Likes” a fan page of a sports team and refers to the team in status updates or interests, then that user may start to see ads related to that team more frequently on Facebook and other sites. This allows corporations to increase their profits by focusing advertising dollars (and the advertisements themselves) at a particular audience, who will presumably show more interest (by clicking or otherwise investigating the ads) than an untargeted audience.

Sometimes, this economic surveillance is closely related to parental surveillance. One example of this is the actions of EchoMetrix, the creators of Sentry Parental Controls. At a cost of $3.99 per month, Sentry Parental Controls were marketed as a monitoring system that allowed parents to secretly view their child’s browsing history along with chat and instant messaging logs. At the same time, EchoMetrix sold this information to advertisers and marketers as a way to monitor trends and popular developments among youth “in their own words – at the moment they say it”. [17] The United States Federal Trade Commission (FTC) filed a complaint with EchoMetrix, stating that they failed to fully and explicitly communicate their practices with parents. In late 2010, EchoMetrix settled with the FTC by agreeing not to share any personal information except for the purpose of allowing registered users to access their account. [18]



[1] MediaSmarts. (2012). Young Canadians in a Wired World, Phase III: Talking to youth and parents about life online. Ottawa, Ontario.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Safe Outlook Corporation. (2012). PartherGuard: Keep honest people honest. Retrieved 15 May 2012 from http://www.partnerguard.com/.; K9 Web Protection. (2010). Protect yourself! Retrieved 15 May 2012 from http://www1.k9webprotection.com/aboutk9/protect-myself.
[5] PC Tattletale. (2010). PC Tattletale Internet Monitoring Software & Parental Control Software. Retrieved 10 May 2012 from http://www.pctattletale.com/.
[6] CyberPatrol. (2012). CyberPatrol Family Safety Center. Retrieved 10 May 2012 from http://www.cyber patrol.com/familysafety.asp.
[7] Computer Parenting. (2012). Stop Internet Predators. Retrieved 10 May 2012 from http://www.computerparenting.com/stop-Internet-predators.
[8] MediaSmarts, 2012; Marx, G.T., & Steeves, V. (2010). From the beginning: Children as subjects and agents of surveillance. Surveillance and Society, 7(3/4), 192-230.
[9] Kamii, 1991, p. 382, as cited in Nolan, J., Raynes-Goldie, K., & McBride, M. (2011). The Stranger Danger: Exploring Surveillance, Autonomy, and Privacy in Children’s Use of Social Media. Canadian Children Journal. (36)2, 24-32.
[10] Rooney, T. (2010). Trusting children: How do surveillance technologies alter a child’s experience of trust, risk, and responsibility? Surveillance and Society, 7(3/4), 344-355.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Meyers, E.M., Nathan, L.P., & Unsworth, K. (2010). Who’s watching your kids? Safety and surveillance in virtual worlds for children. Journal of Virtual Worlds Research, 3(2), 3-28; Nolan, Raynes-Goldie, & McBride, 2011.
[13] Dinev, T., Hart, P., & Mullen, M.R. (2008). Internet privacy concerns and beliefs about government surveillance – an empirical investigation. Journal of Strategic Information Systems, 17, 214-233; Nolan, Raynes-Goldie, & McBride, 2011
[14] MediaSmarts, 2012, p. 17.
[15] Ibid.
[16] Fuchs, C. (2012). The political economy of privacy on Facebook. Television & New Media 13 (2), 139-159
[17] CBC News. (2010, December 1). Parental spyware sold kid’s chats: Unfiltered online conversations were read by advertisers: court documents. Retrieved May 11 2012 from http://www.cbc.ca/news/story/2010/12/01/con-echometrix-charges.html.
[18] Federal Trade Commission. (2010). FTC settles with company that failed to tell parents that children’s information would be disclosed to marketers. Retrieved 11 May 2012 from http://www.ftc.gov/opa/2010/11/ echometrix.shtm.