Microsoft's new family tools for Android, Windows 10, and the Xbox One aim to help parents keep tabs on their kids. But the features and the company's wording reminds us more than a little of Spider-Man's Uncle Ben and Orwell's Big Brother. Here's the opening line from the company's blog post:
"We live in a technological era of both great opportunity and great responsibility. Children have access to more information, entertainment and more ways to connect than ever before..." While that's undoubtedly true, it's also a word or three away from the prophetic "with great power comes great responsibility" line that marks one of the defining moments of Ditko-era Spider-Man.
But hey, it's a great line, and good enough for the US Supreme Court, so why not Microsoft? What gives us more pause is some of the features the company is rolling out with this family-centric announcement.
To be fair, most of Microsoft's existing family-centered features are innocuous. One syncs parental settings that block mature content and enforce screen time limits across Windows 10 and Xbox One devices; another establishes a shared notebook in OneNote; and perhaps the most useful prevents kids from buying anything they want from app or game stores by notifying parents whenever their child wants to make a purchase.
Some of the features introduced today, however, are more involved and invasive. The first lets parents monitor their kid's location via Android smartphones with the Microsoft Launcher installed, as long as the launcher is connected to a Microsoft account connected to a family group. Now instead of having to guess where their child is, or simply ask the kid directly, a parent can just pull up the device's last known location.
The second new feature lets parents see what apps their kids are using, as well as how much time is spent in each app. Microsoft's Launcher will also show activity on connected Xbox One or Windows 10 devices. This should make it easier to know exactly what a child is doing with their device, which we're sure many want to do these days, considering the breadth of software available on Android smartphones and tablets.
Both features have obvious benefits, but they could also put a kid's privacy at risk, not only to their parents but also to hackers. Questions about giving a smartphone to a child you don't trust and "teaching" them to behave via constant monitoring aside, the fact remains that collecting this data for personal use inherently puts it at risk of compromise, whether it's via direct interception or gaining access to the parent's account.
Just look at TeenSafe: earlier this month, it was revealed that the parental surveillance company had exposed the Apple IDs and passwords of children whose smartphones were being monitored via its program. Sensitive information wasn't put in direct danger--attackers couldn't have accessed location history, call logs, etc.--but the Apple ID and iCloud accounts that manage such private data were exposed.
Children are going to use modern devices. That's just a fact of life, and it's good that Microsoft is trying to make it easier for parents to navigate these relatively unexplored waters. The question, really, is how parents will use these features. Will they only check on their child's location in an emergency, or will they constantly monitor them? Will they freak out if their kid installs a dating app? It depends on the parent, of course.
Parents have a lot of responsibility when it comes to acclimating their kids to being always connected, and easily in the public eye via social media. The more of these monitoring-turned-surveillance tools crop up though, the more we wonder if these children will ever be given the opportunity to grow up.
Then again, kids are almost always more tech-savvy than their parents. Chances are many of them will just find ways to circumvent these new features. In the process, some will learn the skills that could start them down the path to a career in tech--maybe even at Microsoft.