When our son was a teenager we got him a cell phone for our peace of mind. My wife and I felt better knowing that we could contact him if we needed to as he was becoming more independent. Thirteen years later, the idea that giving your children cell phones so that they will be safer is a bit naive. To state the obvious: The now ubiquitous smart phones, and the social media apps they can be loaded with, open an amazing world of social connection, information, and entertainment to any user. Some of these same apps also present a very real potential for trauma and criminal abuse — with hazards lurking alongside the healthy and vibrant social connectivity that most parents want their children to have.
After reading news reports, though, it is clear that worried parents have reasons to be worried.
Last January we read about a 13-year old girl who was murdered in Virginia, allegedly by an 18-year year-old male and a female accomplice after they had exchanged messages with their victim on the social media app Kik. There are other dark uses of social media, too, like the story on this blog about a concerned mother who was able to thwart a teenaged blackmailer who had convinced her daughter to send him compromising photos via Kik. We at Love146 know from our experience working with survivors of trafficking that social media is a common method for traffickers to find and groom their victims.
New technology, such as high-level encryption software, isn’t helping parents breathe any easier. Some of us see the tension between law enforcement and Apple over iPhone encryption and understand the desire to keep government, whether here in the U.S. or abroad, from being able to access call and message logs. WhatsApp, a free mobile messaging app similar to KiK, recently announced its platform-wide roll out of end-to-end encryption. This means that the app’s estimated 1 billion users worldwide, which police say included the terrorists in the attacks in Paris, can now expect that all inter-app phone calls, video calls, text, and photo messages will be free from the watchful eyes of hackers, the government, and law enforcement.
We understand the need to ensure privacy and to protect our First Amendment rights, especially for those who are marginalized or discriminated against, and especially in the wake of revelations about the heightened surveillance from U.S. anti-terrorism policy. Some of us working with (or sensitive to) the issues of child trafficking and exploitation are legitimately concerned about the impact of a nearly impossible-to-detect tool in the traffickers’ arsenal — a tool that provides a cloak of invisibility to some of the darkest activities in the world.
We’d suggest the conversation about privacy and encryption move beyond fear of terrorism — and include a more thoughtful consideration of the everyday safety of our children.
For a predator, endpoint encryption allows for uninhibited access to millions of minors around the world. It is a means to build and nurture a dependent relationship upon which to manipulate, and a platform to explicitly advertise the sale of sex and pornography to possible buyers. No need to speak in code or be subtle trying to evade explicit criminality: demands from buyers to traffickers could be more explicit than ever, and transactions and plans could form without fear of detection. Police will have no ability to read messages unless they have access to a suspected party’s unlocked device or username and password to an app. Furthermore, messaging apps like Kik and WhatsApp automatically delete messages after a certain time-period, making it even harder to incriminate a suspected trafficker, child exploiter, or buyer.
For all these reasons, the tension between privacy rights and law enforcement is incredibly difficult to navigate. Love146 sits on the Twitter Trust & Safety Policy Council, and we take our role in this discussion very seriously. We don’t believe the answer to a safer world for children is simply censorship or disregarding privacy rights. However, we do believe that confronting the harm technology can do in malicious hands could lead to some common-sense approaches. We’re wrestling through a difficult dilemma. Knowing there’s rarely a perfect answer, we would be wise to learn all we can about online safety and protecting children in our families and communities.
The world is a lively, challenging, wonderful, mysterious, dangerous, beautiful and baffling place, and it’s all filtered through these ubiquitous handheld devices.
We can’t turn back the clock on technology, including encryption — nor would we necessarily want to. Smart phones aren’t likely to get dumber just because there is a dark and tragic downside. We believe we should live in a world where governments don’t oppress their people, and where commerce would not include the buying and selling of human beings, including children. For now, unfortunately, that isn’t the world we live in.
While we wrestle with this tension, it’s left to us — the users — to get smarter.
We know of parents who have employed all sorts of strategies to help keep their children safe. Some best practices include finding good, healthy communication practices with our children, to make sure they are behaving responsibly online and that they feel safe sharing their concerns with us as parents. We know: it’s easier said than done. That’s why we developed our Internet Safety Guide. Smart phones alone may not keep your children safe, but being alert to the dangers and having some clear strategies to make sure they are being used wisely just might do the trick.
Alessia DeGrazia contributed to this blog.