Parental eyes, they’re watching you

surveillanceBecause if using your kid’s phone as a high tech ankle bracelet isn’t enough, now you can watch them from afar while they are at summer camp.

When David Hiller’s two daughters checked into Camp Echo, a bucolic sleep-away camp in Upstate New York, they relinquished their cellphones for seven idyllic weeks away from their digital lives.

But not Hiller: His phone rings 10 times a day with notifications from the summer camp’s facial-recognition service, which alerts him whenever one of his girls is photographed enjoying their newfound independence, going water-skiing or making a new friend.

Basically the camps have photographers running around taking pictures of what’s going on, which are fed into facial recognition software which then pings the parent when their child is caught on camera. Because that’s not creepy!

The technology has shoved one of childhood’s most traditional rites of passage into the Internet age, offering parents a subtle means of digitally surveilling their kids’ blissful weeks of disconnect.

The face-scanning technology also has sparked an existential tension at many camps: How do you give kids a safe place to develop their identity and independence, while also offering the constant monitoring that modern parents increasingly demand?

Well, you don’t. The kids are not stupid; they know exactly what’s going on.

When a camper isn’t smiling or is on the outside of a big group shot, counselors said they know to expect a phone call from back home. Liz Young, a longtime camp director now helping oversee two camps on the coast of New Hampshire’s Lake Winnipesaukee, said she now fields as many concerned-parents calls in two hours as she used to get all month — mostly from parents asking about how their kids look on camera or whether they’re being photographed enough.


“If a child’s not captured one day, that parent will be ringing: ‘Were they being left out? Are they okay? Are they in the infirmary?’ And we might just know, oh, they went to the toilet,” said Rosie Johnson, a photographer from London working this summer at a camp in the woods of Michigan.

The kids, knowing their parents, will often try to make themselves seen, racing up to her during the day to say their parents need more photos. “A lot of the girls will say, ‘A photo a day keeps your mum away,’” she said.

And as an extra bonus, of course the software licenses behind all this grant the developers permission to use their kids’ photos for whatever they want, anywhere in the world, forever.

How about this alternative: the camps have photographers taking pictures and when camp is over, everybody gets a nice photo album to commemorate their kids taking a first step toward independence. Meanwhile, maybe you go a week or two without seeing your child? Believe it or not, generations of humans have not only survived that experience, but discovered that it’s an important part of raising kids to become independent, self-sufficient human beings. A win for everybody!

What do parents think will happen if they don’t keep tabs on their kids like this? Probably a lot of the things that happened when I was growing in the 70s and early 80s. We drove down to the seawall by the town beach at night, notorious for drinking and making out (I was a nerd, we really just went and looked). We went to the parking lot of the Shakespeare Theater (another notorious teen lust spot) to see if we saw any cars we recognized. We went to a crappy street in downtown Bridgeport where we knew our parents wouldn’t want us to be, and watched a hot dog vendor fight off seagulls near Beardsley Park. Really wild and crazy stuff.

More importantly, though, we’re training a whole generation to be accustomed to constant surveillance. That’s got all kinds of disturbing implications, unless our dream of the American future looks like Chinese social monitoring.

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