Parenting & Privacy with The Privacy Dad
About nine months ago, Henry and I made a comment on Surveillance Report 106 about how there's not enough privacy content out there aimed at parents. Neither of us are parents – and I can't speak for Henry but personally I've decided not to have kids – so while we may possess the “technically correct” answers to the problems parents face, we both know that the reality is much more complicated and nuanced: kids are people, too, and while they may still need the guidance and protection of their parents, there is no one-size fits all solution for every child, let alone every age. Children mature differently, have different personalities, and come from different backgrounds. When we talked about this on air oh so long ago, Henry quipped that a great name for such a project would be “The Privacy Dad” or “The Privacy Mom.” We never expected anyone to actually take up the mantle. I should really stop expecting to stop being taken seriously these days.
Within a few days someone contacted us to say that they had taken us up on that idea and started a blog. Of course, being new, it had no content so at the time I decided to simply put it in the back of my head and circle back around to check it out later. Well, here we are months later and The Privacy Dad has grown into a pretty good project with a wealth of consistent blog posts and even a podcast appearance. After another recent story about parents using spyware to digitally hover over their kids, I became exasperated and realized this was a topic I really wanted to tackle. Again though, being that I'm not a parent myself, I didn't really feel qualified to give any actionable opinions. So, I decided to reach out to our friend over at The Privacy Dad and see if he'd be willing to contribute to this cause. So without further ado, dear readers, I present my text interview with The Privacy Dad about the struggles facing modern parents in the internet age and how to navigate them well.
Q: Can you start by telling us a bit about your privacy credentials: do you have any tech background? Any cybersecurity or privacy education? Etc?
A: First of all, thanks for reaching out! I don't have any formal IT education or work experience. I have taken a few online courses on Linux, can use the command line, and am able to set up and manage a public-facing server, and mine XMR using my own node.
The Privacy Dad's blog is for people who are either not technical at all, or like me, are in the middle of learning more by trying things out themselves. Where I would say my credibility comes from is the amount of time I've put into learning about privacy and trying out privacy tools. It helps that I have always kept detailed notes.
Q: What about your parent credentials? How many kids do you have and how old are they (roughly)?
A: As I'm typing this, I'm assaulted by a pleasant cacophony of Haim's music coming from one end of our home, mixed with the construction noises of the video game Cities: Skylines from the other, and my partner calling for max 20 more minutes of screen time for everyone.
We have three kids: one in elementary school, one in high school, and one about to complete higher education. My partner and I are both high school teachers and have worked with young people most of our professional lives.
Q: Final context question: what sort of a world did you grow up in privacy-wise? (ex, I grew up pre-internet. I never had to worry about my baby pics being posted to Facebook or my medical records being hacked or being on YouTube at too young of an age.)
A: Like you, I grew up pre-Internet, and feel privileged to have that before/after perspective about computers, networked interactions and especially gaming! It might also be of interest that I grew up in a strict Evangelical Christian community, where the school leadership felt entitled to tell us we were not allowed to dance, engage with secular pop culture, or have sex before marriage—God was always watching.
Q: Let's start at the beginning: I've read several articles that talk about how pregnant women are a goldmine for targeted advertising. How bad is it really, and did you or your partner take any steps to protect your privacy during the pregnancy? If so, how did it turn out? Do you believe the steps you took helped? Do you regret any of them or wish you had taken others?
A: This is where I don't have a lot to offer, I'm afraid. We had our youngest over ten years ago. While social media was already in full force then, I don't remember it being anything like today, where apparently menstruation tracking apps can alert Big Tech about pregnancy before you may even be aware yourself.
I do believe that it was during this time that I first began to notice the connection between my own social media and platform use and targeted advertising. I remember being surprised to see ads or receive emails about baby products. I remember thinking: how do they know?
It is interesting for me to reflect on these questions, because they are about a time in my life when I was just a regular consumer, not at all interested in digital privacy. Having said that, I can't see or think of any long-term negative effects today that stem from being careless about privacy regarding pregnancy back then, but I suspect it might be very different today, especially with changing laws about abortion in the US, for example.
Q: Let's skip ahead to early childhood. As a privacy advocate, I assume you've probably not been eager to share your kids' photos online. Has that gone over well with the mother? Other close relatives like grandparents, uncles/aunts, etc? How do you deal with that?
A: Haha—this question touches a nerve, as I am sure it does for many of your readers who have kids. When our two youngest were toddlers, I began to pay attention to social media and digital privacy. This led to quite a few arguments between us. I had the uncompromising zeal of the convert and didn't want any images of my kids online; I think I deleted my own Facebook account around that time. Eventually, my partner and I came to some kind of compromise (I think she began leaving faces out of the photos, and changed privacy settings for family pictures). Nowadays, we are much more on the same page about digital privacy.
I remember one specific occasion where a friend of ours filmed in our home during a birthday party, and then posted that film on line, freely tagging everyone in it. I remember feeling angry at the presumption of that, but I was also aware that a confrontation might come across as paranoid. Over the years, I have learned that a persistent gentle approach, avoiding direct conflict with friends and family works best in the long run. (Editor's note: The Privacy Dad notes he has a blog post about this topic here.)
Q: Technology is basically inevitable at this point. Were you hesitant to introduce your kids to the internet? Where did you start to bring them online, and what steps did you take at first to protect them?
A: As is probably the case with parental management of independence in all families, the oldest child has to endure the strictest rules. Our oldest was going through middle and high school when smartphones and social media for teenagers really exploded (Instagram, SnapChat, Reddit). Schools were adjusting to this onslaught of changes in young people's behaviours. I was seeing a lot of unhealthy screen habits with my own students, and as parents who were also teachers, we erred on the side of caution. I ended up taking the lead on this in our home and made a lot of mistakes. (Editor's note: again, TPD has a blog post relevant this.)
In hindsight, the more successful and positive approaches were:
be the admin of your child's devices
be transparent about what you can and cannot see on their devices
set fixed screen times for younger children
create new accounts only by negotiation
keep all screens out of bedrooms. This last one can and possibly should be continued until an older age.
Q: While “letting go” of your kids is definitely a gradual process, were there any particular milestones you remember (such as first phone, first actual account, etc)? How did you know your kids were ready for those steps?
A: This is such a great question. With our oldest, we kind of let things unfold as they came up. This was a time when everyone, schools in particular, was trying to figure out the best ways to integrate devices in their environments. While I doubled down on parental controls, my oldest had their own smartphone and laptop early on, especially when these devices became essential for school work.
With our younger two children, my approach was more measured and deliberate. Particular milestones I remember are setting up Ubuntu on second-hand ThinkPads (and reveling, as a parent at least, in the incredible financial savings!) and explaining to my middle child about different operating systems, software, and why choice is a good thing. I also recall my kids' good humoured responses when I gave them each their first Nokia feature phone. My middle child has a custom ROM phone (/e/OS), and they like the 'off grid' feel of owning a de-Googled device. I set up a Cake Wallet account with two of my children and gave them each a small amount of Monero. My kids use a Whoogle instance in the home which runs on a small Raspberry Pi. With my middle child, it was fun to look at the school-provided Chromebook together and laugh at the strictness of the administrative controls on it and explore potential loopholes. Introducing your child to different types of operating systems and open source software early on gives them a healthy, critical perspective.
My kids understand (on the whole) they cannot just create an account on a platform without discussing it with us first. I have found them to be quite accepting and good-natured about it all, with occasional moments of frustration. I am aware that may not be the case in all families. I would recommend starting the process early.
Q: All parents make mistakes. What have you found is the best way to deal with the privacy mistakes, such as letting a kid reach a milestone too early?
A: As teachers, we know that it is much smarter and less painful to relax strict rules slowly over time, rather than trying to regain a foothold over ones you've given up. The best way to deal with when that does happen is to be honest with your child (I like what you wrote in your intro about children being people too) and try to use reason to readjust parameters. But sometimes as a parent you will have to make the call and reverse decisions, which your kids won't like. You have to accept your responsibility as the adult in such situations and be firm.
Q: Realizing every child is different, what are some of the ways you've successfully instilled a privacy value into your kids?
A: Introducing them to ideas about privacy and the tools from an early age can build a healthy critical perspective in your child. They have to be able to understand why it's worthwhile using, for example, LibreOffice Writer, rather than do it because you told them to. What has been rewarding here is when conversations come up about their observations on peer or even teacher behaviours at school. My children are not on TikTok, but notice strange behaviours, for example. Walking around with a feature phone might be a pain, but they notice screen addiction in their peers (and even some teachers!) during school hours.
Noticing that you have a broader perspective can be rewarding in itself. I think children like the feeling that they can perhaps see a bit more about what's really going on, for example, with Google's infiltration in schools. As a parent, I try to avoid being evangelical, but do engage seriously when my kids bring it up.
Lastly, there are some privacy tools that are just really good. I'm thinking of, for example, Signal and Bitwarden. They can also see that going the privacy route doesn't always result in inconvenience.
Q: Again, realizing every kid is different, what are some of the methods you tried that definitely didn't work and you would recommend other parents avoid?
A: Looking back, I would say doubling down on parental controls tools and maintaining constant oversight was not constructive; I ended up becoming 'Big Brother' to my own child, at a time when they were needing to explore their own independence. I have discussed with my students the horror of family tracking apps like Life360. Not only are there terrible data and privacy issues, parents just shouldn't track their children, full stop.
Q: If you had to give advice to new parents regarding their children and privacy, what would you tell them?
A: By far, not allowing screens in the bedroom has been the most effective method for managing my kids' online lives in a constructive way. It's a simple rule that everyone can get onboard with while avoiding a whole lot of problems and confrontations. We initially introduced this rule for online safety reasons, but I have found that having all screens in the communal spaces helps with discussions about operating systems, software, passwords and online accounts.
Secondly, don't be afraid to be a little bit strict when it comes to admin rights and conservative in setting up new accounts. You may be surprised how well kids can accept being the only one without a TikTok account in their class, if that has been part of the conversation from a young age. Try to use logical reasoning and explanation where possible.
Lastly, make sure the extra strictness is balanced with fun. If you are able to, sit down and explore privacy tools like Linux, open source software, Raspberry Pi, etc. with your child. Present your own interest in privacy as a hobby, just like you might share your passion for gardening with you kids. Explore together. If you don't have confidence in your own IT skills or an interest in digital privacy, then try to educate yourself. And don't be afraid to compromise; we play video games and stream content here just like any other household does.
Huge thanks to The Privacy Dad for taking the time to answer these questions. As he noted in the first question, his blog is not just for parents, it's for anyone who's interested in privacy regardless of tech background, but personally I especially like that we're getting insight from parents. There's a wealth of voices in this space who are single or not parents, or who simply don't talk about it (which I can respect, it's tricky to respect your family's privacy while also talking about them). It's great to see content that parents can relate to that can help them navigate this tricky space better.
If you're interested in getting another great voice in your privacy diet, I definitely recommend subscribing to his blogs. I've been following for a few months now and it's great: interesting, digestible, and relevant. You check out his website here if you want to learn more. Thanks for reading.