Caroline Knorr has seen how suburban cyberspies are made.
“I have a friend who was worried about her daughter,” she says. “She was concerned that her daughter was visiting these pro-anorexia, pro-bulimia websites—they call them ‘pro-ana’ and ‘pro-mia’ sites. And it got to the point where she felt she needed to know what was going on.”
Normally, Knorr is no alarmist when it comes to talking about kids’ Internet safety. As parenting editor at Common Sense Media, a San Francisco-based children’s advocacy group, she’s blogged about the unnecessary worries too many parents get into over their children’s activities on social-networking sites—becoming entrapped in what the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry coined the “techno-panic mindset”—and has made it her quest to sort out the myths from reality. In her reassuring posts, Knorr cites current research indicating the majority of kids really just want to hang out and have fun on social media, and that most never come in contact with the dreaded pedophiles and cyberbullies whose exploits make the nightly news.
“If kids are using social media sites that are age-appropriate, then a lot of that interaction is actually healthy,” she says. “I have another friend whose son is very, very shy, and he doesn’t have a lot of real world friends. But on the Internet, he’s the king of Minecraft! So he goes online and has this great feeling of empowerment and connection. If you’re a kid who feels like ‘nobody understands me,’ you can get this interaction with another person who does.”
In the case of Knorr’s other friend, however, the mom feared her daughter was hanging out in destructive, anti-social online communities (what the Journal calls “deviance amplifying” groups). Pro-ana/mia Web forums, similar to pro-wristcutting message boards, can encourage self-destructive behaviors (most are proudly anti-recovery), and possibly send the wrong message to a kid who actually needs help. Finally, Knorr’s friend decided to take her first peek down the deep, dark rabbit hole of online parental surveillance.
At first, she merely opted in to the extra service most cellphone carriers offer that track the location of each device on the contract. “So if you just want to know where your kid is, it’ll send you a text and show you a map. Of course, that won’t work if your kid’s phone is off!” But later, she began exploring the plethora of monitoring software now being marketed to paranoid parents: hidden stealth programs that can send mom and dad every inappropriate text or Instagram selfie their little darling sends hurtling through cyberspace.
“It’s a little bit of a risk to set up that dynamic,” Knorr warns of the spy-versus-spy relationship that can result when a teen suspects her cherished cellphone is being hacked by her parents. “There are some Web trackers that can give you a lot of information. I mean, you can get keystroke loggers that will track literally everything that’s ever been typed on that device. That may seem a little extreme, but if you have a kid who’s really troubled, maybe you can get more insight into what they’re doing.”
A better tactic, Knorr says, is to start a conversation early—preferably when you first bestow that pricey smartphone on your kid—about the rules of engagement that come with the hardware.
“As a parent today, you really have to create a media plan with your kids,” she says. “You have to engage in a dialogue about how they use their time on the Internet and also talk about the privacy issues. It’s important to keep those conversations going, because the technology fixes can backfire. They can provide a false sense of security, because kids who are determined can defeat them. And it also sets up an us-versus-them dynamic, which is risky in those tween years when you want to be more aligned with your kids.
“Trust me,” she adds. “Nothing sets up a bigger battle today than when a tween suspects their parents are spying on their cellphone!”
From Helicopters to Drones
If you really want to play Eric Snowden on your kid’s online activity, it’s easier if you don’t get him an iPhone.
“That’s still the one pretty much everyone in our business is trying to get to,” says Rob Williams, chief marketing officer at SpectorSoft, one of the leading makers of monitoring software for computer and Internet activity in the United States. “That’s like the final frontier.”
The company has managed to crack Android and Blackberry phones with its eBlaster Mobile product, an invisible app installed by opening an email on the target phone that then captures and sends text messages, Web history, GPS locations, voice call logs and even (“just for parents!” as its sales pitch teases) instant copies of any photo taken with the phone’s camera.
The British-based mSpy, another popular spyware manufacturer, offers software that can monitor iPhones, but only if the user first “jailbreaks” the device by installing an exploit that removes limitations on Apple’s operating system (iOS), a process the majority of iPhone users avoid, as it violates the warranty and can degrade the stability of the system. To date, no spyware maker has been able to get its monitoring software onto an unmodified iPhone.
“The way the architecture is on the iOS, it’s very difficult to use monitoring software on the iPhone,” Williams concurs. “It’s not difficult, it’s impossible. Right now, anyway.”
Understandably, many of the consumer-based spyware manufacturers, which flourished during the days of the shared family PC, have found it difficult to adapt to the mobile age. A simple browsing history won’t do when teens are sending “Mission Impossible”-style Snapchat photo messages designed to self-destruct after 10 seconds. Parents have come to demand more sophisticated monitoring options, too. The helicopter parents of today want nothing less than remote-controlled drones that can follow their kids home from school.
“The landscape has really changed over the years,” Williams says. “Whereas once it was the family PC out in the living room that everyone used, then multiple computers and laptops spread throughout the home, now most kids don’t even use a desktop computer or laptop. They’re on their smartphones for communications and text and Web surfing. So it’s gotten more and more difficult for companies to keep up with changing technology.”
In a bold and controversial move, mSpy recently began selling smartphones pre-installed with its own monitoring software. Though it’s difficult to gauge how many sales actually go to adults looking to spy on cheating spouses—a practice the company officially discourages, as the only people you can legally monitor without their knowledge are your own children younger than age 18—the change does make it easier for parents to offer their kids an already wired-for-spying smartphone in four of the top varieties: Galaxy S4, Nexus 5, HTC One and, most crucially, iPhone 5S—pre-jailbroken.
Buying pre-spyware-loaded smartphones also distances the parent from the uncomfortable experience of having to secretly load monitoring software on their child’s phone later, an act of distrust that can trigger a bit of Big Brother guilt in any progressive-thinking parent—especially if the child catches them in the act.
“It works in stealth mode on the target drive, so it’s undetectable,” assures Andrew Lobanoff, mSpy’s head of sales. “A kid would have to be a partition developer who has developer access to the device to detect mSpy and delete it.”
It may soon become even harder. Next up for mSpy: a service that bypasses the physical device to catch teens and tweens where they’re really living today: in the cloud.
“In a few weeks we will be introducing a new product which will allow you to check a virtual device—the cloud,” Lobanoff says. Among the new features on mSpy’s latest version, parents will also get “Photo Spying,” which will let them remotely take a picture with their kid’s smartphone camera each time the target device gets unlocked, a “Live Listening” feature, which will allow them to hear everything within audible reach of the target device in real time, a YouTube tracker and, the pièce de résistance, Snapchat tracking.
“We’ve received multiple requests from our customers who are monitoring their kids that they would like to monitor Snapchat messaging,” Lobanoff says, promising that the updated software will be able to capture those temporary photo messages in less than the 10 seconds it takes for them to get deleted from the hosting server. “Technology’s changing all the time, so we have to keep up with it.”
Nowhere to Run
One company that’s already up in the cloud is TeenSafe, a Web-based subscription service for the iPhone and an app for the Android that taps into the phone’s data stored in the cloud. On the Android, a hidden app is installed to phone home to the parents, but on the iPhone, the service accesses only its iCloud backups. All the parent does is go to TeenSafe’s website and enter their kid’s Apple ID and password (often the same as the parents’, if the parents’ are footing the bill for app downloads), and voilà! All iMessage texts (including deleted messages), Web browsing and search history and call logs are immediately displayed. If you also know your kid’s Facebook and Instagram passwords (according to a recent survey, at least 61 percent of U.S. parents admitted to logging into their teenager’s Facebook account without letting them know), that activity can be aggregated for you, too.
Of course, the downside of this method is that it’s easy to defeat: a kid can turn off data backups in the iPhone’s settings or, if he has his own ID, can change the password to access it. “You’re monitoring the cloud, not the device,” says SpectorSoft’s Williams. But it’s also impossible to detect, which lessens the likelihood that the kid would suspect he’s being spied on.
While it all may sound creepy (particularly to the kid being monitored), TeenSafe goes out of its way to put a wholesome family-safety spin on the service. “For parents of children under 18, this is a tool that provides a window into the child’s digital life,” says Ameeta Jain, co-founder of the Costa Mesa, California-based company and a mother of two teens herself. “It’s an amazing tool and resource for parents to have these days in order to protect them from all that is out there, and to strengthen that relationship that a parent and child should always have.”
Jain cites examples of parents whose relationships with their teens were bettered through spying. “I had a dad call who had a young daughter—great girl, happy, getting good grades in school—whose personality started to change. She withdrew, she wasn’t as open. So the dad went online and found TeenSafe and, once he started seeing her text messages, he found out she was being bullied. He took it to the principal, got her into a different school, and now she’s happy again. TeenSafe was able to show that parent what was happening and it opened lines of communication, it created transparency, and he was able to protect his daughter. Instead of being a villain for spying on her, he became her hero!”
While Jain recommends letting the teen know her phone is being monitored, she acknowledges that many parents keep it a secret. Even still, she maintains that just having that concealed “window” into a teen’s digital life can give parents an edge in understanding what’s going on. Jain’s heard from parents whose kids are now amazed at how perceptive they suddenly appear to be.
“It can be anything,” she says. “Maybe it’s a single mom watching over her daughter who notices her daughter is trying to buy a boy’s affections by always picking up the tab at Starbucks. Without revealing where she’s getting that information, she can subtly start up a conversation like, ‘Hey honey, anyone who’s interested in you, remember you never have to buy their love,’ and instill in her that self-respect and self-worth that she may be lacking. It kind of stimulates those natural conversations that we’re already supposed to be having as parents but that we may not know we’re supposed to be having yet. Like, ‘Oh my gosh, I have to address this issue already? It seems like she was only 5 yesterday!’”
If there’s one conversation that should result from a teen learning her phone’s being spied on by her parents, it’s that nothing done on that phone is really safe from prying eyes—especially theirs.
“I have a 15-year-old daughter myself,” says Williams. “And I tell her, ‘Don’t believe what Snapchat tells you about those photos disappearing.’ That picture is saved somewhere, because it has to be delivered to somebody else. A lot of kids are out there thinking nobody can screen capture what they’re sending. They think there’s that anonymity and nobody can see what they’re sending through the cloud. But they can, and that can come back to harm them later.”
Particularly if mom and dad are seeing those party pics on their phones, too.