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Invading the privacy of young people makes them less safe

Point/counterpoint: Alex Koroknay-Palicz on parental surveillance

Privacy is not a luxury. Nor is it a threat to safety.

Ten years ago America was attacked in a shockingly brutal and violent way. Thousands of innocent people died and millions more feared for their safety. Pledging to protect us from terrorists, the government passed the Patriot Act, which greatly expanded the authority of the government to keep tabs on us. We were told this law would keep us safe. We were told that, while privacy and freedom are important virtues, the world is different, everything changed after 9/11 – and these virtues are simply too risky now.

A debate ensued. On one side was the government, which was working hard to keep us safe and protect our lives from attack; and on the other side were activists, who believed their selfish desire to check out books about making bombs was more important than the safety of hundreds of millions of Americans. At least that’s the way the debate was framed in some quarters. The other side framed it as a battle between a tyrannical government, who created a panic so they could amass more power for themselves, and freedom fighters who were out to save our democracy and our Constitution from these despots.

As with all things, the reality was a bit more complex. But complex, nuanced arguments don’t make good sound bites and don’t attract ratings. Both sides jockeyed to frame the debate and the arguments became simplified. In the end the debate became reduced to a choice between freedom and security. Which do you want? Pick one.

The debate about whether young people should have privacy is no different. One side will tell you that there are many sick, twisted pedophiles out there intent on abducting and molesting our children. They tell us that parents only want to keep their kids safe and thus invade their privacy to protect them from these threats. Back in the day, sure, young people could have their privacy, but that was before the Internet, before sexual predators, before all the dangers we see out there – the world is different now and privacy is simply too risky. Parents are only looking out for the best interests of their children.

I’d like to respond with a bit of nuance. The truth is that we don’t have to pick between freedom and security. It is a false choice. Freedom and security aren’t exclusive ideals when it comes to national security, and they aren’t exclusive ideals when it comes to keeping our kids safe. Privacy is not a threat to our safety, and it isn’t some luxury we are only entitled to when things are calm and peaceful. Americans have a right to both freedom and security – Americans of all ages.

Since I’m comfortable with nuance and complexity, I can safely say that the other side of this debate is right. There ARE lots of bad, dangerous perverts out there who are a serious threat to our children. Just as there really are lots of bad, dangerous terrorists out there who are plotting to kill us. The other side is right that parents have pure motives and are seeking the best way to keep their children safe, just as the government passed the Patriot Act out of a genuine concern to keep us safe.  There are no enemies or despots or “evildoers” in this debate. Yet I strongly dispute the notion that privacy is a luxury of tranquil times or that invading privacy will keep us safe. In fact, I believe that invading privacy not only makes us less free, it makes us less safe.

Catering to the fears of frantic parents has become big business. An anxious parent can now buy spy cameras to put in their children’s room, or GPS devices to put in their backpack or clothing to track their every move, or monitoring software to observe (and record) every single thing their kid does on their computer. Low tech parents still have the option of regularly searching through their kid’s possessions, or reading their diaries or removing the door from their bedroom. Parents are increasingly requiring regular drug tests of their teens, and tracking devices can even monitor a person’s heartbeat and vitals at all times, so a concerned parent can tell whether their son or daughter got excited or scared that day. A new device currently under development pairs that heartbeat monitor with a camera and audio, so a parent can see and hear everything their child does, no matter where they are.  And you thought the Patriot Act was invasive.

Parents can now track, monitor and observe every moment of every day, both inside and outside of their kids. So how could I possibly say that this makes them less safe? Surely a parent can see any threat to their children and intervene in time to save them. Perhaps. But to what end?

We need to ask ourselves, what is the point of parenting in the first place? What role do they play in society? If you say their job is to raise children, I’m going to disagree with you. The job of a parent isn’t to raise children – it is to raise adults.

In recent years, with the rise of “helicopter parenting,” many parents are failing to teach their kids the most important skill of all – how to get along without them. We are seeing a pervasive problem of infantilization across the nation, with young people unwilling or unable to take care of themselves independently. These young adults (some into their 30’s) are increasingly living at home and are relying on their parents more than any previous generation.

When parents hover over their kid’s shoulder at every moment of every day, with or without technology, their teens have no space to learn responsibility and no room to become independent citizens. If you constantly rush in to protect them from every danger then they will never learn how to protect themselves. Your son or daughter will either be stunted in their development and cling to you for protection and direction, or they will be thrown to the wolves with no ability to recognize threats or protect themselves from them. This will make them less safe.

Those youth who accept this surveillance won’t really distinguish between a parent spying on their every move “for their own good” and an FBI agent spying on their every move “for their own good.” By removing from our children the expectation of privacy, we are raising adults who have no expectation of privacy. These adults, these voters, simply won’t object to increasingly invasive efforts by corporations and governments to monitor their lives. Thanks to invasive parents, it is the only life they’ve ever known.

But all teens are different.  Some acquiesce to the constant surveillance of the helicopter parent and others fight back. Those who do will, I can assure you, find a way around efforts to monitor them. Teens are much smarter than we give them credit for. For these teens, parental spying breaks down the bonds of trust. They will hide their life from you, not share their hopes, their dreams and their fears. More troubling for the anxious parent, they will not come to you for help or advice when they face dangers in their life. These teens, as opposed to their infantilized peers, will grow up resenting their parents.

Parenting experts say that open dialogue and trust are vital to healthy relationships. Going through kids’ things and tracking their every movement (whether online or off) poisons that trust and breaks down open channels of communication. Most people would never put a tracking device on their spouse, and there is no justification to treat your son or daughter any differently.

The extent of surveillance now taken for granted in the family is unprecedented. Some may say that the world is different now – more dangerous now – and dangerous times require different approaches to keep children safe. This is nothing more than a myth based on fear, not fact.

The reality is that 2009, the most recent year we data for, was the safest this country has seen since 1968. Crime has plummeted in the last 20 years, yet there is very little understanding of just how safe the country is now. Fear of crime seems to be increasing just as actual crime is declining. Yes, there is still danger. Yes, there are creepy guys who troll chat rooms for underage girls and we need to be vigilant, but there is no unprecedented crisis that we need to use unprecedented surveillance techniques to prevent.

Teaching our sons and daughters how to recognize threats to their safety and how to avoid them is a better tactic to keep them safe. Privacy and safety are not mutually exclusive ideals. We can be secure and free – in fact, there is no other alternative.

Alex Koroknay-Palicz is Executive Director of the National Youth Rights Association. Learn more about NYRA at

Where to next? Pick one!

Posted in: Commentary on May 12, 2011 @ 8:37 PM

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