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Cory Doctorow: How to Talk to Your Children About Mass Surveillance

There’s a popular forum on the Reddit online service called ‘‘Explain Like I’m Five,’’ in which redditors pose difficult and esoteric questions whose settled answers are beyond their comprehension, and ask their fellows to simplify these answers to the point where a five year old could follow them.

Parenting is a long-running game of ‘‘Explain Like I’m Five’’ (actually, it starts with ‘‘Explain like I’m a pre-verbal infant,’’ and I imagine it ends somewhere around ‘‘Explain like I’m a post-adolescent young adult’’). My daughter, Poesy, is six, and she’s turned me into a skilled player of ‘‘Explain Like I’m _______,’’ starting when she was about two and a half and found out about death and was consumed with existential terror. For about a year – a very long, very difficult year – I found myself explaining death and the circle of life, over and over again, to my kid. It’s the only time I’ve ever regretted being an atheist. I’m pretty sure that if I’d floated the idea of harps and robes and eternal paradise in a cloudy heavenscape, I could have avoided a lot of grief. But it was worth it, if only for the weird misunderstandings that my attempts engendered, like when we visited a friend’s farm and Poesy explained that the celery in the garden was made of dead people.

Since then, we’ve tackled a variety of substantial topics, from globalism, to climate change, to racism, to the Holocaust, to evolution, to the Enlightenment, to monarchism, to cosmology and quantum uncertainty. We talk about Ukrainian politics and we talk about global aviation logistics. We talk about Chinese labor migration and we talk about proportional systems of governance.

While these conversations are often a lot of fun, I wouldn’t say any of them are entirely successful. For one thing, I don’t think I can really claim to fully understand any of these subjects (I’m not sure anyone does). But the real limiting factor is the ability of my six-year-old to pay attention and actually grasp the highly abstract ideas under discussion. Certainly, there are some explanations that quickly and obviously bore the heck out of her, and others that she can grasp right away. Six years into the Explain Like I’m game, I still can’t predict which will be which with any accuracy.

But this week, I struck gold. My daughter has recently figured out that when I go away to ‘‘give talks,’’ that I’m actually talking about stuff and has started to ask where I’m going and what I’m going to say when I get there. As I write this in March 2014, I am about to board a plane for Austin TX, where I’ll be part of a day-long program at the SXSW festival on surveillance, sharing a stage with NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden, who is videoconferencing in from Russia.

So I explained to my daughter that there was a man who was a spy, who discovered that the spies he worked for were breaking the law and spying on everyone, capturing all their e-mails and texts and video-chats and web-clicks. My daughter has figured out how to use a laptop, phone, or tablet to peck out a message to her grandparents (autocomplete and spell-check actually make typing into an educational experience for kids, who can choose their words from drop-down lists that get better as they key in letters); she’s also used to videoconferencing with relatives around the world. So when I told her that the spies were spying on everything, she had some context for it.

Right away, we were off to the races. ‘‘How can they listen to everyone at once?’’ ‘‘How can they read all those messages?’’ ‘‘How many spies are there?’’ I told her about submarine fiber-optic taps, prismatic beam-splitters, and mass databases. Again, she had a surprising amount of context for this, having encountered digital devices whose capacity was full – as when we couldn’t load more videos onto a tablet – and whose capacities could be expanded with additional storage.

Then I talked about not reading everything in realtime, and using text-search to pick potentially significant messages out of the stream. When I explained the spies were looking for ‘‘bad words’’ in the flow, she wanted to know if I meant swear words (she’s very interested in this subject). No, I said, I mean words like ‘‘bank robbery’’ (we haven’t really talked about terrorism yet – maybe next time).

And immediately she shot back, ‘‘That silly! What if I just wrote ‘I played bank robbery this afternoon’ in a message. Why should a spy get to read it?’’

Following her lead, we dug deeper and deeper into the subject, talking about what a reasonable standard for surveillance might be, the problem of police deciding you’re suspicious and then going through your stored communications looking for evidence, and finding it because we see whatever pattern we expect to find. These subjects resonated with her in a way that surprised me, though it shouldn’t have. Kids are both continuously surveilled and sensitive to surveillance. My worst parenting moments (so far!) have been when I’ve paid too much attention to the kid doing something at the limits of her abilities, only to make her so self-conscious about failing while someone else looked on that she moved on to something else.

But the drive for privacy is, it seems, innate – and it manifests early. Oh sure, kids may over share on social networks, but that doesn’t mean they’re indifferent to privacy. It just means that they’re not very good at it. Of course they aren’t – privacy is a hard and subtle problem, and kids are still learning. As sociologist danah boyd – who did more than a decade of fieldwork examining kids’ online habits – points out in her brilliant new book It’s Complicated, kids put extraordinary effort into being private online in relation to their parents, their enemies, their teachers, and school administrators. They often get this wrong, and generally totally miss how important it is to be private from future employers.

boyd makes a good case for abandoning the idea of ‘‘digital natives,’’ a label often applied to kids born after about 2005. She says that thinking of kids as digital natives ascribes an unrealistic level of technical mastery to them, leading us to believe that every weird and dumb thing that teenagers do on the Internet must be done on purpose. As boyd points out, teenagers screw up a lot, and when we see them doing something messed up, the most obvious explanation is that they’re messing up – not that they possess some kind of preternatural technology jungle-sense that lets them understand the exact and perfect way to relate to Internet privacy.

Kids care intensely about privacy, because kids make a lot of mistakes. Making mistakes is how you learn not to make more mistakes in the future. Making mistakes while someone else watches is a qualitatively different experience from making them on your own. Kids know, intimately, why privacy matters.

So I’m not surprised that my kid wants to talk about surveillance with me, and that this subject has grown to eclipse all others during our talks: ‘‘Daddy, let’s talk about the spies some more.’’

Snowden’s revelations haven’t created a post-surveillance world. But I think they have knocked us into an orbit that intersects, eventually, with the post-indifference-to-surveillance world. We sleepwalked into the surveillance society, one minute degree of privacy at a time. Our species has a well-documented inability to notice dramatic changes when they are undertaken gradually enough – until we get a shock that awakens us to their full scope. Think of a crowded party where everyone talks louder in stages, until it becomes a roar that we don’t even notice until we step out into the ringing silence of the night.

All of a sudden, people are waking up to the full extent of surveillance. Like my six year old, we’re having our eyes opened to the reality that all our communications are monitored under the thinnest of pretenses, and without any real safeguards or transparency.

A September 2013 Pew research report called ‘‘Anonymity, Privacy, and Security Online’’ found that 86% of American Internet users have taken a (mostly useless) step to protect their online privacy. The reason their actions were useless is that nearly all their tools are designed not to protect their privacy – or worse, to actively attack their privacy. But 86% is a big number and a lot of businesses and foundations are going to work on simplifying the notoriously hard-to-use suite of standard cryptographic tools like PGP/GPG, OTR, Tor, and all the other noodles in the crypto alphabet soup.

I’m volunteering for some of these foundations, including the End to End Foundation, which just held its inaugural retreat in London. One thing we discussed was the toxicity of the way we talk about simplicity in tool design, specifically the oft-repeated phrase: ‘‘simple enough for your mother to use.’’

Not only is this gratuitously insulting to mothers everywhere, it’s also massively inapt. The people who violate security protocol most often aren’t harried stay-at-home moms: they’re bosses. Every CIO knows that the person most likely to demand passwords to get into every system and then totally fail to keep those passwords secure, the person most likely to ignore protocol and hook up an insecure device to the secure network, the person most likely to log into a sensitive system from a public terminal is the CEO.

That’s not because CEOs are jerks: but because they’re busy, and they have to get stuff done. In our lives, we all have to wear an ‘‘executive’’ hat a lot of the time, trying to figure out what to pay attention to and how much attention to pay to it. It’s our internal CEO who violates our own security protocol most often, deciding that strong passwords aren’t as important as getting time-sensitive, important stuff done.

So the End to End Foundation has decided that its mission is to make security tools that are ‘‘SO EASY, YOUR BOSS CAN USE THEM.’’ We’re going to help you encrypt like a boss.

The Snowden era has sparked debates on whether the Internet is good for freedom or bad for it. The reality is that the Internet is both good and bad for freedom, depending on how it’s used and regulated. The right question to ask isn’t ‘‘Does the Internet make us free?’’ The right question to ask is ‘‘How can the Internet make us free?’’

This is how I’ve explained it to my six year old and how I will explain it to my bosses.


Comment from David Marshall
Time May 2, 2014 at 8:00 pm

The quality of the discourse in the Doctorow household is impressive. With such informed debate in the formative years, the offspring should mature into an intelligent member of society. Extrapolating from this, perhaps said parent would like to explain what can be done to improve the general intellectual environment for nurturing our children. We should want the next generation to grow up with fewer prejudices and a greater command of critical thinking skills. As it is, our society seems doomed to recycle the same intellectual poverty that bedevils the discourse and other mechanisms for social interaction. If an answer can be published, the author can assume I’m seven years old and able to handle simple concepts.

Comment from leif
Time May 3, 2014 at 10:09 pm

My 9yr old has been following the news because her friends grandma is from Ukraine and even he cant understand why the people that burned the city and killed police officers are now the new government of the country and killing its own people.
He goes “Why is it ok for one group to use violence but then another group does the same its not ok?”
When the mainstream media cant even fool grade school kids, you know that the storylines are simply beyond childish.
The 14yr old is world weary and listens to Adam Curry-J.Dvorak so everything is ‘bullcrap|” and he questions everything that he hears. So PRISM, Wikileaks, Snowden are only an extension of the governments=politicians lie all the time.

Part of the ‘dont leave a trace online’ teaching we did to make sure that they can use the internet without giving crucial information means that we have done the stalker-pedo-predator teachings, the older cousins who have been battered and beaten by police while peacefully demonstrating (one is a medical student and the other in theology) have impacted to the kids that police have no qualms hitting girls (my oldest was just in grade 1 when he said “I thought boys werent supposed hit girls? Are police allowed to hit girls?) so the government is spying lesson isnt really a stretch.

The trick is to teach them to think for themselves and not necessarily think that all those in powers lie-cheat-abuse us. A 6yr old and a 15yr old have different perceptions and insecurities and honestly ive seen too many parents that want their kids to grow up faster. Not all kids are the same.

Comment from joe
Time May 4, 2014 at 7:34 pm

2 things. #1 please get rid of the WordPress commenting and replace it with facebook, disqus, or some easy to compromise single sign-on solution. It will give us context for the future discussions. :-)

#2 excellent, amazing, perfectly timed discussion. I’m envious of the level to which you have taken what I call the “treat your children like intelligent human beings” philosophy. Good work, dad.

Comment from Jennifer B
Time May 5, 2014 at 8:21 am

Doctorow nails this! My new favorite quote: Kids, it seems, intuitively understand what it’s like to be constantly monitored by unaccountable, self-appointed authority figures!

Comment from Alan Wexelblat
Time May 6, 2014 at 11:38 am

Brilliant. Reminds me of some of my chats with my kids. Just wait ’till you get to the exciting parts of negotiating kids’ privacy vis-a-vis you and then trying to explain why, no, they don’t get that (yet).

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