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Ohio hastens surveillance culture

– In some states, spying on your kids’ phone calls or emails is a felony. But now an Ohio lawmaker is calling for child surveillance to be legalized – so parents and guardians can eavesdrop on the communications of minors without having to worry about committing any crime.

Rep. Brian Hill, R-Zanesville, is pushing to amend a state wiretapping law that can land a person up to 18 months jail time if they try to intercept a wire, oral or electronic communication. Hill wants to insert a clause into the law making it permissible for parents, grandparents, guardians and custodians to snoop on their kids’ communications so long as they are younger than 18. The interception would have to be made, according to the proposed law, “in good faith for the protection of the child.”

Hill first launched a version of the bill last year, and it passed unanimously through the state House but stalled in the Senate. He originally decided to take action after he said he was approached by a judge in his district who heard of a situation where a parent was prohibited under Ohio law from intercepting communications between an underage daughter and an adult. Hill reintroduced the bill late last month, after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut prompted renewed concern about children’s safety and school violence. He said in a statement:

“With today’s youth being so comfortable with using technology like the Internet and cell phones, the ability for a parent to monitor what their children are doing is critically important to ensuring their safety. While we want to make sure our children have freedom and privacy in their lives, we live in a family-based society that should encourage parents to do everything they can to keep children safe.”

The ACLU chapter in Ohio has previously come out against any attempt to change the current wiretapping statute, saying it was opposed to the bill because it “could be construed to allow people, like school administrators and teachers, access to a young person’s private communications.” Gary Daniels, associate director at ACLU Ohio, told me there was a broader concern that the law could have a chilling effect on children’s speech. It could lead to “kids who are afraid to converse with other kids, even if it’s not about anything illegal,” Daniels said, due to “the idea that there might be a watchful eye or many watchful eyes looking over what that kid is communicating about.”

Spying on children’s phone calls and emails is certainly something of an ethical and legal gray area. Much like the use of GPS trackers to secretly monitor spouses, ownership of the property subjected to covert surveillance may be a crucial factor in determining whether the snooping was within the boundaries of the law. It’s not clear yet how Hill’s proposal would apply to minors who pay for their own pay-as-you-go phones, for instance. But that isn’t stopping spy tech companies. There is already a booming marketplace for eavesdropping tools – like “IAmBigBrother,” “MinorMonitor,” “SpyBubble,” and “uKnowKids” – designed to allow parents (or, more worryingly, anyone else) to intercept text messages, snoop on online conversations and emails, and listen in on phone calls.

Aside from the potential legal issues, parent-child spying involves a difficult and highly contentious balance of trust, safety and privacy. It’s also another example of how new technologies are moving us toward an increasingly pervasive culture of surveillance. If kids grow up comfortable with such monitoring, will they even think to question warrantless wiretapping or the use of domestic drones?

Ryan Gallagher is a London-based journalist who reports regularly on surveillance technology for Future Tensea collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation and Slate, exploring how emerging technologies affect society, policy and culture.