Safety or Stalker App?

“…Life360, a location-sharing app aimed at families, is apparently ruining the lives of teenagers all across the United States…Parents can now remotely check their child’s browsing histories and social media accounts, watch their movements via motion-sensing cameras, and track everywhere they go with location-sharing apps. In a Pew Research Center study last year, 58 percent of US parents said they sometimes or often look at their teenager’s messages, call logs, and the websites they visit. In a separate study from 2016, 16 percent said they used location-sharing apps.”

—Louise Matsakis, “On TikTok, Teens Meme Life360, the Safety App Ruining Their Summer.” Wired. July 12, 2019.

Contrast the features of Life360 with this report from The Citizen Lab on Stalkerware:

“Persons who engage in technology-facilitated violence, abuse, and harassment sometimes install spyware on a targeted person’s mobile phone. Spyware has a wide range of capabilities, including pervasive monitoring of text and chat messages, recording phone logs, tracking social media posts, logging website visits, activating a GPS system, registering keystrokes, and even activating phones’ microphones and cameras, as well as sometimes blocking incoming phone calls. These capabilities can afford dramatic powers and control over an individual’s everyday life. And when this software is used abusively, it can operate as a predator in a person’s pocket, magnifying the pervasive surveillance of the spyware operator.”

Christopher Parsons, Adam Molnar, et al. “The Predator in Your Pocket A Multidisciplinary Assessment of the Stalkerware Application Industry.” Citizen Lab. June 12, 2019.

Open question: What distinguishes a “safety app” from a “stalking app,” the presumably benign intentions of parents? What happens to children that grow up in this environment? Will they go on to submit to this kind of surveillance from their domestic partners and spouses? What of the underlying economics that are reporting all your activity in order to refine automotive insurance pricing?

If you think through the implications, surveillance capitalism is often sold as a “safety” feature, but the economics are driven by other considerations. Further, the impact on human flourishing and autonomy are rarely understood and often significant. These developments are not good for anyone other than the people providing the app. Don’t be fooled.

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