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Parents could 'spy' on kids' mobile phones

Parents may soon be able to read their children's text messages as part of a plan to give them more control over rapidly developing technologies.

It is being billed as another tool in parents' armouries, but civil libertarians say if you need to pry into your kids' phones then you are not doing a good job as a parent.

The technology could be rolled out in Australia by August but privacy issues loom as the main obstacle.

Mobile phone bullying, 'sexting' and the danger of sexual predators have all emerged as risks as young people use their mobile phones at younger ages.

Three weeks ago a serious case of cyber-bullying at an elite Sydney girls school prompted the principal to tell parents to confiscate their girls' phones overnight.

American company My Mobile Watchdog says it has responded to this community concern by launching software that allows parents to see the text messages, calls, picture messages and emails sent to and from their children's phones.

Geoff Sondergeld is the managing director of Device Connections, the exclusive Australian agent for the software, and he says parents have to face the reality of modern communication.

"The child is notified every time they power their device that their phone is being monitored and they must accept that notification before they can move on to use the phone in any normal use," he said.

"The screen will say 'your phone is being monitored by mobile watchdog, press any key to continue'."

He insists the product is not spyware, because the child will know every time their parents access the records of their phone.

But Civil Liberties Council head Terry O'Gorman is not convinced.

"If this technology allows a parent at any time to in effect go and read any communication that is going to or from their child's mobile phone, that is simply not acceptable," he said.

"Children have certain rights of privacy, including certain rights of privacy in their communication, that their parents should not know about."

He says parents should not rely on technology such as this to keep aware of what their children are doing.

"Those parents that argue they need that software ignore the reality," he said.

"The best way of finding out what's happening with your child is to talk to them and not access their phone communications behind their back.

"If there is cyber-bullying going on, a good parent-child relationship will have the child tell the parent that so that the parent can do something about it."

Complex lives

But many parents would acknowledge it is not always that easy. Parents often do not see their children except after work and for part of the weekend, and keeping on top of everything in their children's private lives is a daunting task.

Susan Hetherington has an 11-year-old son and she is also a media commentator on children's issues.

"I think it is pandering a little bit to parent hysteria about issues like paedophilia and cyber-bullying but I don't think it's unreasonable for parents to be able to make some basic checks on who their children are talking to, depending on the ages of the kids," she said.

"As long as you're still paying the bills, you have rights to know how that phone is being used.

"In days gone by if someone wanted to talk to their child they'd call the family home, you'd answer it and you'd decide if they could speak to them. I don't see how this is very different from that."

Mr Sondergeld shares this point of view and says the technology should be used alongside traditional communication.

"I guess the opposite view to that would be that parents have the flexibility to change the level of monitoring," he said.

"If they give their eight-year-old a phone they might choose to have everything monitored. As the child grows to 15 or 16 they might choose to scale back the level of monitoring so their child can experience more."

Mr Sondergeld has had detailed discussions with the Australian Privacy Commission, and says the technology complies with all 10 privacy guidelines.

Quite apart from the letter of the law though, Mr Sondergeld is keen to focus on the response he has had from focus groups with Australian parents and children.

"Overwhelmingly the children's desire to have a mobile phone outweighs any impact on the parents being able to monitor them," he said.

"Parents will certainly need to establish some ground rules with their children if they put it in, particularly children who may have had a phone for 12 months or so.

"But kids are saying they understand their parents might want to know if someone strange is trying to contact them."

Communication between children and parents is the key according to Mr O'Gorman.

"This particular technology poses a special problem in respect of teenagers as they get older," he said.

"There is general recognition that as a teenager gets older that teenager is entitled to more and more autonomy as they traverse that difficult but gray area from being a child to being an adult."

If the technology is approved it should be available in Australia by August, and Mr Sondergeld anticipates it will cost between $10 and $15 per month.

According to various surveys around 40 per cent parents in Australia use filtering and monitoring software on their children's computers.

Ms Hetheringtom says the mobile watchdog technology is something she would consider, but she would not use it unless she sat down and had a long discussion with her son about it first.

Posted by: SoulRiser
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Posted in: News by NewsBot on June 15, 2009 @ 12:00 AM

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