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Snooping on your kids: If the NSA’s tools were available, I probably would have used them

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This post is the first of four stories about my experiences snooping on my kids and their online behavior over a period of years. Part two is here, part three is here and the final instalment is here.

This isn’t an easy thing to admit, but I felt a secret twinge of shame when I was reading the recent leaks about the National Security Agency’s surveillance program — the one that allows them to index all the phone calls of suspected threats, scoop up emails and other internet traffic, and even reportedly listen in on real-time voice and text chats. Why? Because I have either used or tried to use similar types of tools (on a much smaller scale, obviously) to snoop on, creep, stalk and otherwise digitally eavesdrop on the behavior of my children over the past decade or so.

While the tools may have changed over the years, and the websites and mobile apps and social networks they used have also evolved — from simple instant messaging and gaming through virtual worlds like Habbo Hotel and Club Penguin, all the way to Instagram, Snapchat and Tumblr — the ethical and social dilemma remains the same for many parents I think.

The NSA and its defenders have argued that what the agency does is justified — even though it may technically be against the Fourth Amendment — because it allows them to identify potential terrorist threats to the U.S. I made a similar argument to myself about the surreptitious monitoring of my daughters’ online activity: namely, that by doing so, I was helping to identify potential threats to them in the form of drug abuse, poor relationship decisions and other hazards of teenage life. Was I right to do so? To be honest, I’m not sure.

Invasion of privacy or parental right?


I do know one thing: when I casually mentioned to a friend and fellow parent several years ago that I was spying on my then-teenaged daughter while she was on the internet — capturing instant messaging logs, reading emails, even at one point using “keystroke logging” software to track what she typed — my friend was not supportive at all. Instead, she was horrified. How could I do this, she asked, when it was such an invasion of my childrens’ privacy?

At the time, I made the same argument that legions of parents before me have probably made, which is that my children really have no expectation of privacy while they are under my roof. In a sense, I figured they were subject to my laws rather than those of the Constitution — within reason, of course — and if I believed that invading their privacy was what was required in order to keep them safe, then I figured I should be entitled to engage in whatever behavior I saw fit. Shouldn’t I?

The hard part about all this, however, is that there’s a lot more involved than just reading your child’s diary or picking up the extension in the living room to try and eavesdrop on a call they are making from the basement. Although I have stopped snooping on my three daughters — since the oldest is now 24, our middle child is 19 and the youngest is almost 16 — I expect that there is so much technology out there that will allow you to track their every click and status update that you could (as I did) find yourself getting sucked far deeper into monitoring than you ever intended to go.

When I look back at it now, after almost a decade since I first began monitoring their online activity, I can see a number of lessons, some of which are more obvious than others. And I can see how in some ways it was a mistake, but in other ways it showed me things about my children — worthwhile, valuable things — that I would never have learned otherwise. And what’s also interesting is how different all three have been in a number of ways: in their use cases for the internet, in the technologies they chose, and in how all that affected my own approach to eavesdropping on them.

Keystroke capture meets teenager

Free keylogger software by IwantSoft
Free keylogger software by IwantSoft

My interest in all this got triggered in the early 2000’s, when I decided to do a review of some software that allowed anyone with access to a computer to capture the keystrokes of a user and store them in a file for viewing later. The software was targeted at employers, but parents were also a potential market — as an alternative to earlier “gatekeeping” software such as Net Nanny, which could be used to block certain websites from young children.

At the time, my oldest daughter — who was then about 13 — had been spending a lot of time talking with friends using Microsoft’s Instant Messenger, and I thought the software would allow me to eavesdrop a little bit on her conversations while also reviewing the software. I installed it as directed (it was just a driver that loaded before the keyboard driver, and stored all the information sent via the keys) and soon I was reading all of my daughter’s chat conversations.

For the most part, this was incredibly boring, I’m happy to say. Our daughter wasn’t the kind of troubled child who cried out for internet monitoring, so there was nothing outlandish like plans to meet up with some 35-year-old in Detroit. There was a lot of talk about boys and homework, and TV shows or books she liked. There wasn’t even any sign of “cyber-bullying,” which had become a big topic of conversation in the media, and which a niece of mine had been subjected to during her teenage years (another reason I was curious to try out the software).

A permanent loss of trust?

father daughter

The only thing remotely interesting that turned up was a conversation about smoking pot one night at a friend’s party. Since 13 seemed a little young to be encouraging that kind of behavior, my wife and I had a little chat with our daughter about the wisdom of that kind of activity — without telling her how we found out about it — and that was pretty much the end of it. Eventually, I stopped looking at the emailed chat logs that the software forwarded me (it would send them based on certain word triggers as well) and went back to not paying much attention to what my daughter did online.

After the discussion with my friend and fellow parent who was shocked about my invasion of our daughter’s privacy, I did tell our kids that we had ways of looking over their shoulders online (without going into too much detail) and that we wouldn’t hesitate to use these powers if necessary. Better to be vague, I thought, so that they wouldn’t know what we were capable of — another echo of the NSA’s approach.

Obviously, my daughters’ emotional turmoil and fondness for certain bands isn’t even remotely comparable to the dangers of terrorism, but the parallels with what the NSA does (and what American citizens allow it to do in their name) still seem pretty strong to me. I believed that what I was doing was justified because I wanted to protect my daughters from themselves — but in the end, I decided that the loss of trust was actually much worse than anything I was theoretically saving them from. Is there a lesson for the NSA in there?

Thursday: My surveillance program continues with our middle daughter, and I discover something unexpected about her.

Images courtesy of Shutterstock / Lightspring and Shutterstock / Denis Vrublevski

40 Responses to “Snooping on your kids: If the NSA’s tools were available, I probably would have used them”

  1. indio007

    “Obviously, my daughters’ emotional turmoil and fondness for certain bands isn’t even remotely comparable to the dangers of terrorism,”

    You might want to rethink that. More toddlers killed US citizens this year than terrorists.

  2. AndreaBG

    A computer savvy mom, I raised my boys (now 19 and 21) in the same era you did. Color me as horrified as your friend re your invasive tactics. Parents are NOT entitled to every scrap of thought or conversation their children have. Children don’t “belong” to us, we’re responsible for shepherding.

    The first, best, and easiest thing I did was set up all our computers in a common area. (Easier in the age of desktop which is waning.) I converted our dining room into a play room when the kids were young and that became a great office/computer set up as they grew. That kept us generally involved in what was going on with them with zero spying.

    Limited “spying”: I did follow their online handles when they were under 15. I never spied to GET their online handles but once they came up in conversation, I did follow them. I learned some things about son #1 that were important for me to know — he’s in the autism spectrum and he was turning into one of the “those angry guys” on the internet. With a bit of gentle mom love I was able to coach him into some better internet practices without ever saying flat out “I read your posts. Don’t be like that.”.

    I regretted following son #2. I learned things I didn’t know, and didn’t have a right to know. He was heart sick over a girl, which, he & I have a pretty close relationship. If he wanted me to know the depths of his feelings, he would have told me. (I did learn also that he’s an amazing writer which is a secret bit of pocket knowledge I’m happy to have.)

    After 15 and with no outside reasons to look any further, I stopped following them. They are intelligent, responsible men. We all did okay. Whatever they want to reveal to me, they will and what they keep to themselves is theirs to keep.

  3. I have only read the first article, so maybe what I am asking will come up in the other three.

    You detail your reasons, expectations, discoveries, feelings, and conclusions in this article. Besides how this has affected you, I am curious about how your daughters have reacted to finding out what you were doing, if they have found out, that is.

  4. I have two kids, 17 and 12 and I confess to a certain amount of stalking and do so without remorse or shame. There are seriously bad people and bad drugs out there. To this, I’ve heard all the usual arguments about how things were bad when we were kids and that you need to let kids be kids, develop responsibility, etc. To those folks I have two responses. 1) yes, they were bad and I’m lucky I lived frankly. My parents and I would have benefitted from the ability to put stronger boundaries and oversight around what I was doing, with whom I was doing it and where I was going. And, 2) things are worse now; the drugs stronger and meaner, the social media effect of recording and distributing bad behavior adds a whole new dimension the the long-term impact, and the consequences are much more severe, from zero-tolerance policies at school, to harsh police responses to minor infractions.

    But mostly what I appreciate about it is the conversations it has allowed us and forced us to have. My 17 year-old mostly has total privacy now, and with him about to head off for college in about a year, I am comforted that we’ve confronted a lot of different things already and he will not be going to college either naive or already too out of control to recover.

    So Matt, thanks for sharing this and thanks to your girls for encouraging you to. There is an old adage about children wanted and craving boundaries. If you can see and know about every other aspect of their life and create boundaries there, why turn a blind eye just because it is electronic?

  5. Regularly monitoring your children’s online activities reveals either pathological distrust or a sublimated, predatory obsession with your children. What if your surveillance had revealed activities of a sexual nature between your daughters and their teenage friends? How embarrassing that would be both for you and your daughters!

  6. wasabitobiko

    Article should be titled: “How not to develop a positive, trusting relationship with your children.” Or, “Why my daughters don’t confide in me.”

    Let me be the first to congratulate you for your Totaliarian Perversion.

  7. Jungledave

    I can understand tripping the GPS if they haven’t arrived home by a set time – not that it would be useful if they were kidnapped – but I’m not a fan of keylogging. I’ve taken to trolling those monitoring, hacking my way out of stuff @ school- why the hell do they need to listen into private conversations? – etc.

    I put a higher priority on teaching than pro-active monitoring. I want themselves to learn how to protect themselves, and more importantly, to protect themselves from jerkwads in any shape or form. Especially NSA/DHS/alphabet soup.

  8. Stefan P.

    This sounds more like a power trip issue. An “I did it because I could” situation. I hope you don’t do this to your wife or friends. I would be paranoid in this household.

  9. charlesmcintyre

    If nothing online is private, why should parents not be aware of their child’s online behavior. If they want privacy, they can write in a diary or journal or talk to their friends. Parents should absolutely 1) be intimately aware of their children’s online activities; and 2) tell their children they will monitor their online activities. Because others are.

    • Gordon Gower

      Charles, I like that. Teach them a bit of the “ways of the world” while at the same time maintaining their trust through full disclosure. – Bravo!

  10. Gordon Gower

    This is an interesting article about raising one’s children in our digital and free flowing information age. For sure… and I admit that I’ve been friended by nieces and nephews and then torn over what behaviour to report back to my sisters & brothers… How much I risk the TRUST of my son and snoop on his behaviour is yet to be seen, he’s only 5+.

    BUT, drawing even the remotest analogy to raising our children digitally and the current government vs. citizen conflict over the governments outright invasion into our privacy is disgusting.

    As a parent, it’s my obligation to teach and guide my son on how to manage his affairs AND, imbue upon him his sense of his self & freewill.

    MY PUBLIC SERVANTS, my government employees have no such obligation, NOR the authority to impose this “training” on me, the citizens.

    Not only disgusting, this analogy is outright dangerous and in many respects “telling” of many of the flaws we’ve let grown into our wonderful system call democracy.

    Folks, Government IS NOT our ruler, they are our servants AND most certainly they are NOT our parent. Remember, the soviets called Stalin Papa, Obama, nor Harper are my Papa! (end)

  11. I love this story. I never equated what the NSA is doing to something so personal to me or that I can relate to so dearly. I’ve just begun to think of these possibilities for my own kids. My daughter just got her first internet connected device. It’s pretty protected with protections but as of yet nothing for eavesdropping.

    I don’t feel the same moral repugnance towards what you did as I do towards the NSA but I do find some of the arguments very poignant and they are making me at least think about them. Something I might not have done before reading this article. So, thanks! And people, please take this as an opportunity to debate. Not as a name calling exercise. This is a valuable opportunity to get some real thought involved in what’s happening in the world and now in the states. I think Reagan is now spinning in his grave.

    Thanks again for this story. Best I’ve read in a while.

  12. We did the same with our kids, with one difference, we told them upfront before they started to use the internet. I have worked with abused kids for years, and no way was I letting my kids online without some pretty serious monitoring until we saw that they knew what they were doing. We monitored daily for the first few months and then less often as we saw they knew what they were doing. The goal was that by the time they had phones, or were accessing the internet elsewhere they knew how to handle themselves and what our expectations were.
    We told them that it was our job to teach them how to be safe online. In order to have Facebook, etc they had to give us their their passwords but we had a keystroke logger too, and could call up any of their accounts whenever we wanted to see what was going on. We talked to them about anything we saw that was concerning. We also told them to tell their friends that we read messages and they did. It was interesting to see how unfiltered the kids continued to be even when they knew a parent was reading what they wrote.

    We had our kids delete messages or posts that were rude, bullying or otherwise just not what we expected from our kids. They learned a lot, and became pretty vigilant themselves about standing up for others online who were being harassed.

    They both made mistakes, got into online fights, provided too much information at times, and had social media drama that consumed them. It was a lot of work but it was our job as parents in the same way we monitor our kids when they are young, gradually expanding their boundaries and curfews as they show us they are ready. The internet is another community and kids do not automatically understand how to manage it.

    At work I had to sign a contract that I would not use their computers or internet for anything personal. Some staff have been fired for ignoring that rule.All social media sites are blocked and there are regular usage audits. I don’t mind, I am paid to do a job that does not involve much internet other than research, and my work hours are clearly defined from my off hours.

  13. Honestly, this is horrifying, in part because if smart, tech-savvy parents who I often tend to agree with, like you, do this kind of monitoring, what hope is there for the majority of adolescents out there, as these sorts of tools become easier to use? Just because you knew you would be a benevolent dictator with the knowledge – and, presumably, not kick a kid out or send them to re-education camp if one turned out to be gay, etc. – doesn’t mean your use is any better than that of someone who would.

    There is only one way in which this sort of eavesdropping would be at all justifiable to me – and that is if you had told your daughters in advance. Let them know they have zero expectation of privacy within your home. Be honest with them about how little you trust them, or their ability to judge when they might need parental intervention. Then see what kind of relationship you’re able to salvage with them as they become adults.

    Signed, a woman who was a teen in the age of dial-up chatrooms. FWIW, my parents would likely have pulled the plug if they’d had any idea what I was getting up to on those chats. I was having sexual conversations at age 16 with a man I knew was in his 30s. He was local. I did eventually end up meeting him – at an event where my mom was actually one of the chaperones. I met several (age-appropriate) boyfriends through there. I had all sorts of cybersex – which helped make it easier to wait to try things in meatspace. I found support there when I was being harassed at school. That community was my lifeline, the one place where I wasn’t too big of a nerd to fit in. If my parents hadn’t trusted me with it, I expect I still would have survived adolescence, but I’d have been a much more damaged person on the other side. Plus, I wouldn’t have developed the comfort with technology that let me feel like I had a right to using the internet. I certainly would have been less likely to have a tech-involved career.

  14. Interesting article that illustrates some of the forces at play but you miss one very crucial point. You did what you did with the best interest of your children at heart whereas the surveillance apparatus does what it does to preserve the power and financial interest of the financial and political elite. Plain and simple.

  15. Creep. People like you are the reason programs like NSA “evolved”. The thought that the world happens without you is just too much for your narcissistic mind to grasp. The psychopathy that requires that kind of stalking is ugly and dangerous. Your daughters are effectively victims of rape. Incestuous rape.
    It’s sick & controlling.
    I have 3 daughters too and all I see in this article is a demented stalker.
    I’d like to know what your daughters think of you.
    I know how I feel about my mother and all she did was read my diary.
    I hate her for that. She took from me the only thing I had, my thoughts, and tried to control me with them. She effectively destroyed any trust I may have put in her. You should be so lucky to have the same from your children for what you have done.

    • I think my daughters understood why I did it — they might not agree with my methods, but I think they know that I did it because I was concerned about their safety. We have talked about it since they became adults and they have forgiven me.

    • Ugh – this comment is way, way, out of line. “Demented stalker”? “Psycopath”? “Incestuous rape”? Totally BS, and hard to understand as anything other than an attempt to take control of the conversation through the use of wildly inappropriate sexualization. The fact that you disagree with his parenting gives you no right to imply, even through hyperbole, that he’s a psychopath who wants to have sex with his daughters. And the fact that your mother read your diary isn’t an excuse for behaving like this. Matthew was far more gracious in his response to you than you had any right to expect.

      And for what it’s worth, there’s a fairly large difference between monitoring a child’s online behavior, on the one hand, and reading her diary, on the other. The diary couldn’t talk back. The diary couldn’t show you a video of a horse being decapitated, or a monkey being vivisected, if you happened to click on a few wrong links. The diary couldn’t invite you to a park, or encourage you to touch yourself, or take your shirt off in front of the webcam, or whatever. There is approximately zero danger associated with a young child writing in a diary in private; the same absolutely is not true for a young child going online in private.

      I agree that reading a kid’s diary is out of bounds. It’s not remotely the same thing as trying to monitor their online behavior.

      • Jungledave


        Here’s the thing: keyloggers monitor everything, even private diaries stored as encrypted files.* A keylogger has no sense of boundaries, no sense of privacy. It’s like 1984 gone digital.

        * On Ubuntu, there are several open-source applications that use encryption to provide a secure, detailed diary.

    • wasabitobiko

      “The psychopathy that requires that kind of stalking is ugly and dangerous. Your daughters are effectively victims of rape. Incestuous rape.
      It’s sick & controlling.
      I have 3 daughters too and all I see in this article is a demented stalker.”

      Seriously, rape, incestuous rape? WTF are you doing online?.. whatever it is, not everyone uses their computer as a sex toy!

  16. Um, how do your daughters feel about you telling the world that you invaded their privacy. I hope you asked permission. If not, you have clearly not learned your lesson.

  17. MJRiley

    I agree this is very devious behaviour. By all means spy if you can’t help yourself but tell them explicitly that nothing they do online is private from you.

      • That’s not how I read what you wrote. You said you didn’t go into detail. That’s very very different from letting them know you have the ability to read every single character they type. If you’d told me that as a teen, I might have assumed you knew what pages I visited. Maybe that you had some content flags set up. Not that you could access the full content of every chat message or email I ever sent.

        Also… re forgiveness… it’s great your children have forgiven you. A lot of people work hard to forgive their parents for things that would be unforgivable from anyone else. Keep that in mind. Just because you have been forgiven in hindsight – allowing them to preserve their relationship to you as their father – does not mean they are actually OK with what you did. I’m glad you were able to keep this from destroying your family, but please don’t think that because you succeeded means that your actions are any less a violation.

  18. It is a question of oversight or not. Trusting your children is about giving young folks the best opportunity to survive. The other has more to do with public safety but at what cost? People shouldn’t complain for what they have given a pass on for so long. Be subjugated, that’s what people naturally gravitate to.

  19. We tried something different. We taught our sons right from wrong. We told them we would be there for them when they needed us. We told them if they ever needed us to pick them or their friends up, no questions asked, to call. We had the luxury of my wife being at home as they were growing up too. And then we trusted them. Now 25 and 27, they seem to have survived unscathed.

    If I had daughters things may have been different.

    The NSA on the other hand, is breaking both the spirit and the letter of the law of the Constitution. I don’t recall the Founding Fathers inserting the line “unless the government of the day doesn’t feel like it”. And I think they knew a thing or two about danger – they risked their lives by signing the Declaration of Independence. Today’s government risks nothing.

    Btw, your social network login does not work (in Chrome anyway). It authorizes then takes me back to the comment as guest boxes.

    • I disagree with you. My house… My network… My computer… My rules. Don’t like it kid? Get a job and fund your own account, device and pay for your own phone bills. Oh, and since your underage and expect me to co-sign… I still have all rights to know what your doing.

      I also strongly believe in employers having full access to everything you do at work on their network using their IT assets. Email, chat and laptops are corporate assets and as such allowed to be monitored. You, as an employee, shouldn’t be doing personal stuff at work anyway.

      Maybe I sound like a communist but I have been in IT for over 30 years and have grown to learn that nothing is private anyway. Want privacy? Don’t use the internet. :)

      • Bob Irving

        A communist? The exact word is “totalitarian” – a communist would hold everything communally, so it would be as much her laptop as yours. A totalitarian insists on control over everything in a state or whatever and trusts no one- that’s what you are.

      • Sam Grey

        I’m afraid your black-and-white division between “company time” and “personal time” doesn’t really work anymore. There are many situations where employees are not working a straight 40 hour week from the office. Many are working from home or remote locations with irregular schedules. Others may need to be connected for on-call purposes or to offer additional support as needed. For them, the idea of “company time” and “personal time” is nonexistent. And that doesn’t even begin to cover the growing issues with BYOD and beyond.

        If companies want to recruit decent and dedicated talent, then they are going to have come up with better models on dealing with personal and work activities than the one you suggest. Luckily, many have.

        As far as the “my house, my rules” argument. Such a stark divisions could easily alienate a parent from a child. I can understand setting boundaries, but as child grows they should have the ability to negotiate those boundaries. It is part of the growing process. They also have the right to a sense of self-hood and privacy. Now, while I certainly don’t support Mr. Ingram’s practice of spying, I do applaud the fact that he, at least, told his daughters that he could see what they were doing. This allowed them to understand that the Internet was not a private space and adjust accordingly. Ultimately, I think that is a good lesson for them to learn.

        There were other ways to teach them that lesson, though.