Family monitoring apps: Prying or Protecting?

South Korean government enforces use of applications to monitor children’s mobile activities

Photo by: Reuters
Photo by: Reuters

Updated Jul 28, 2015

Aiming to protect children from online predators and harmful content such as pornography and violence, the government and parents are turning to monitoring tools in South Korea, according to a story first reported by the Associated Press.

In South Korea, parents can track their children’s smartphone activities in real time with at least 14 apps such as Smart Sheriff. Besides monitoring the time their kids spend on their mobiles, the apps also issue alerts when keywords such as “suicide”, “pregnancy” have been searched and also let families disable other apps and even totally shut down the phones.

Last month, South Korea’s Communication Commission - the regulatory body for the country’s telecom industry - made it mandatory for telco firms and families to install a monitoring application such as Smart Sheriff for children under the age of 18.

Although the measures don’t apply to older phones, most schools sent encouraging letters to parents about the monitoring apps, which have been downloaded almost half a million times.

Many countries, including Turkey, have filtering tools for the protection of the young but South Korea is rare in that it now legally enforces the use of such tools.

The only escape for children seems to be having their parents buy non-Android smartphones.

Many experts on the field claims that the law and its practice goes beyond its goal and that infringing this far on privacy and free speech will produce an Orwellian generation, comfortable with surveillance.  

"It is the same as installing a surveillance camera in teenagers' smartphones," Kim Kha Yeun, a general counsel at a nonprofit organisation that is appealing the regulation told AP.

"We are going to raise people who are accustomed to surveillance."

According to South Korean government data, eight out of 10 children under 18 and 72 percent of the elementary school kids own a smartphone. A recent study by the American Academy of Pediatrics showed that one third babies learn to use smartphones even before they learn to walk or talk.

These kind of statistics is the main motive for many parents monitor their children. Even, they find it productive.

“What is important is that parents and children talk to each other and try to build consensus. I see it as positive in helping nurture his habit of self-control,” a father told AP.

However, according to legal experts, the collection of teenagers’ personal, sensitive, data may have unwanted consequences.

"South Korea underestimated the chilling effect," said Kang Jeong-Soo, from the Institute for the Digital Society.

Some students say that they won’t give up their privacy and wait until they are over 18 to buy a phone.

"I'd rather not buy a phone," said Paik Hyunsuk, 17.  "It's [a] violation of students' privacy and [oppresses] freedom."

TRTWorld and agencies