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Symantec - Invading the privacy of our youth, one parent at a time - The LAMP

Symantec – Invading the privacy of our youth, one parent at a time

By August 15, 2009 News 2 Comments

We here at The LAMP constantly struggle with the hot topic known as “Internet Safety”. Since our beginning, we have made it our goal to de-link the word “Internet” from the word “Safety”. We’ve found that the association sets up the dialogue to immediately be about the dangers of going online, and leaves very little room for a healthy discourse about the different and pleasant experiences that can be had with digital media. In fact, we prefer the term “Cyber Wellness” when engaging this topic in our workshops, events and resources. When we speak to parents, families and youth, we try to dispel as many false notions or incorrect statistics that they’ve received from numerous sources, all the while engaging their apprehensions and insecurities (which usually has to do with a lack of awareness and knowledge of what is available to them). Concentrating the discussion solely on the ways we can keep our children and ourselves safe misses the opportunity to engage the idea of Why and How we use digital media (and how it uses us).

We also strive to offer a community-based, not-for-profit response to the more prominent, better funded corporate-based resources. In fact, when we participated in last year’s inaugural NYCyber Safety Summit, we were the only local non-profit organization participated among a field of multi-million dollar corporations. Those groups have a vested interest in keeping the debate about “safety” and the risks involved in going online, because they can develop software, and filters and other devices they offer for sale that will purport to “keep your loved ones safe.”  Not to mention the potential liability the likes of Microsoft, Google, Time Warner and Symantec face for providing tools and access to the Internet should a serious (though very unlikely) incident occur. This leads us to address Symantec’s latest offering:



“Like most parents, you’re concerned about what your kids are doing on the internet.” (Do you see how they immediately frame the discussion as one where you should be concerned as opposed to be engaged?)

When you first visit the site, you are greeted with the three promises from Symantec: to watch, block and intervene. Easy enough. But how exactly? Thankfully, they’ve provided a video that shows exactly what they think you should be doing (we highly recommend you watch the video in order to follow a large portion of this post; click the link above to see the Flash video). You are introduced to a picture-perfect family in a picture-perfect house where each member of the family has their own computer or electronic device. But what’s this? Joey is showing signs of concealing his online activity. What’s a parent to do? With Symantec, Joey has a limited number of hours per week he can access the web, and needs to ask permission when he wants more time. (Although, Dad doesn’t seem too concerned about why 10 hours a week isn’t enough for his son to research his homework.) And, Mom can spy on young Claire’s web searches and sites she visits about fad diets, and have a heart-to-heart about the grapefruit diet she tried when she was her daughter’s age.

Hold on here. Isn’t it a bit creepy how sterile and acceptable this form of monitoring is portrayed? Mom and Dad monitor activity as if they were over Claire’s shoulder constantly. Wouldn’t your daughter feel just a touch angry and violated if you “spied” on her and jumped to conclusions before giving her the chance to explain herself to you first? In the beginning segments of the video, a woman’s voiceover declares that it feels like a full-time job “just to keep up” with what kids are doing online. If you are suddenly given access to every keystroke, every punctuation mark, every expression your child makes online, and you are then supposed to look at all of this, how is the job made any easier? What this is suggesting is that you need to monitor not just your child’s online conversations but EVERY conversation they partake in with friends, relatives, teachers, etc.

This is all very troubling, but unfortunately not the most troubling aspect of this product launch. For the foreseeable future, Symantec has pledged to make this software free to those who download it. Our first question whenever a for-profit corporation provides anything free is “Why?” followed quickly by “How?”. Unfortunately, at the current moment, we cannot offer explanations for the why, but when you dig deeper into their Privacy Policy, you can begin to understand why they offer this from their bottom of their altruistic, corporate hearts:

Information we collect that does not personally identify you or your children as individuals (e.g. utilization patterns) is exclusively owned by Symantec and may be used in such a manner as we deem appropriate.

We will communicate with you and your children using the email addresses you provide to us and by notices posted on our website.

We may also from time to time send you promotional information unless you have opted out of receiving such information.

This company has a multi-million dollar annual budget, so what do you think it does with the statistics and demographics it compiles from the users of this “free” service? And still, the information they collect goes further:

Once your child is setup in our service, our client software (which runs on your home computers) will collect information about your children’s online activities.
This includes information about:
the websites your children visit and those that we block them from visiting.
the online chat screen names they and their friends use, time spent conversing online and in certain situations the text of the online conversations themselves.
the online search terms your children use
your children’s social networking activity
the amount of time your children spend using the computer and online.
This information will be stored on our servers in the United States and is used to report to you summary information about your children’s online activities.

Surely, they will only use it to report to you your child’s online activities. For free. For real?

The biggest problem we have with this latest “fix” from Symantec is the same problem we have with any corporate effort to address our digital lives: a lack of engagement.

They are not talking to families, to parents, to youth about their uses of media, and they are certainly not engaging the overall saturation of media that has drenched our lives. The idea is that kids are the problem, the way they use the Internet is “wrong,” and parents–regardless of how well they understand new media themselves–know what’s best. This is where we hope to offer a tangible and realistic advocacy for honest and healthy online interaction in our workshops, events and resources. Parents and kids need to come together, to explore media together, and to engage in a meaningful exchange about how to use new media. Installing spyware is not enough.

  • Apart from giving me douche chills, the video left me wondering why they didn’t show the eventual tantrums and arguments that arise due to these sorts of tactics. You’re essentially telling your kid that you don’t trust them to make the right decisions (more than likely because you’re too lazy, as a parent, to do the research and find a better, more pro-active and positive approach).

    Parents who would use this are selling out their children’s privacy to a corporation that will take their child’s surfing habit data and gladly sell it to other corporations so that they can better brainwash them with targeted ads. Brilliant!

  • Thank you for your comments about our new family safety service OnlineFamily.Norton. We agree with you that any healthy discussion of children and their online activities should begin with a recognition that the Internet provides multiple positive entertainment, educational and creative opportunities. We welcome your critique of our service and wish to correct a few misunderstandings of both our intentions and our service.

    You state concern about our privacy strategy. We take very seriously the privacy of our customer and the children on the account. As a company built on security and safety, we have a team devoted to auditing all of our systems to ensure the highest levels of security are upheld. All personal information is kept completely separate from the monitoring and reporting functionalities of OnlineFamily.Norton and we do not share OnlineFamily.Norton customers’ data with third-parties.

    In your article, you describe our service as “sterile” and “spyware.” Our intention was to create a service that children would recognize as helpful and something that would allow their parents to relax about their web activity. Towards that goal, the service is never in a “stealth” mode – the child always sees the reminder that their web surfing is guided by OnlineFamily.Norton when they turn on the computer and the icon remains in the tool tray at all times. Anytime the child interacts with the service, by visiting a blocked site or by staying online past the agreed upon hours, the message is child-friendly and flexible. The child can even type a message to the parent and request permission or explain what happened. And during the initial setup we encourage parents to discuss the purpose of the service and the House Rules with their children. Additionally, the reporting is very simple for the parents. They can log in from anywhere (work, home, travel) and quickly respond to their child’s changing needs.

    With regards to recording search, we find this helpful because it shows intent. Too often we parents overreact to any evidence our child visited a blocked or forbidden site, without figuring out how they arrived there. By seeing the terms entered into search, parents can separate innocent online mistakes, which we all make, from intentional and risky behaviors requiring parental intervention.

    OnlineFamily.Norton was created with the help of an Advisory Council of experts in the fields of parenting, media research and internet safety. Our members include: Dr. David Bickham of Children’s Hospital Boston, Anne Collier of ConnectSafely, Marsali Hancock of IkeepSafe Coalition, Robin Raskin of Living in Digital Times, Tim Sullivan of School Family Media and Vanessa Van Petten of Radical Parenting. I’m the head of the Advisory Council, the editor of our website, the author of our Family Online Safety Guide, and a parent of three children.

    Symantec also conducts our own primary research in 12 countries around the world to better understand what people are doing with technology and on the internet and what concerns they have. Some of our findings helped to solidify the planning of the OnlineFamily.Norton service.

    For example, through our research we know that parents continue to worry about the issue of online predation or that their children spend too much time on the Internet. Or they worry their children are visiting websites they would not approve of. It’s not a value judgment, this is what parents report in our research. For this reason, we are able to state that parents “are concerned about what your kids are doing on the internet.”

    In addition to providing this service, Symantec participates in several key conferences and research efforts to bring balance and greater understanding to issues of safety on the internet. For example, we attended and presented at the Internet Safety Technical Task Force’s Berkman Center study of children’s online risk. We were pleased with the findings that showed risk of online predation is far lower than previously believed and peer-to-peer risks such as cyberbullying and identity theft were more day to day issues to contend with. We are supporters and on the board of the Family Online Safety Institute, the National Cyber Security Alliance and many others. Through our corporate philanthropy arm, we provide support to organizations that educate the public about online safety issues while striking the balance of reducing hype and validating their programs with research.

    In summary, we are always grateful for feedback on our products and services. I hope I’ve shown the depth and breadth of our work to create a family safety service that encourages communication and fosters trust. It’s research-based, supported by the external guidance of experts and as a web service, we can continually update it to best serve the needs of our customers.

    Marian Merritt
    Symantec/Norton Internet Safety Advocate