Family Scanning

Parenting tech domesticates state surveillance

Full-text audio version of this essay.

In 1939, the Great Depression still raging, the president of Zenith Radio Corporation, Commander Eugene F. McDonald, Jr., commissioned the first baby monitor, designed by the famous American sculptor, Isamu Noguchi. The monitor came in two parts, the Radio Nurse Receiver and the Guardian Ear Transmitter. The receiver tends the baby when the parent cannot, with no risk of falling asleep itself, nor harming the baby while working under the sign of its care; the transmitter springs to action, relaying information instantaneously to the parent over a distance — a gendered parental ideal, augmented through technology.

McDonald was, to put it bluntly, rich, and a father to a young child. Worried that his daughter was a prime candidate to be the next Lindbergh baby — who had famously been kidnapped from his crib seven years earlier — he needed a device that would afford him a form of security the Lindberghs hadn’t had. A full staff was not enough to safeguard his little one: The Lindbergh baby’s nanny, Betty Gow, had been the first suspect in that case. Although she was cleared, domestic workers were often subject to classed, raced, and/or xenophobic distrust by the families who employed them. Gow, an immigrant from Scotland, would return to Glasgow after her questioning; Violet Sharp, a woman working in the household as a servant, was subject to such intense questioning and suspicion that she ended up taking her own life by drinking poison — she was cleared via alibi post-mortem the very next day. McDonald, who likely shared his peers’ classist attitudes, didn’t want to have to rely on human care. He wanted to be able to put his baby to bed securely at one end of his yacht, and have his wife entertain at the other, without sacrificing knowledge of her whereabouts and wellbeing.

The baby monitor began its life as a techno-optimistic fantasy of perfect vigilance and perfect control, and it has remained just that

Fears about disappeared children have determined the way parents monitor and surveil children across the 20th century and into our present, even as they become background noise: The Lindbergh kidnapping and subsequent media frenzy perhaps inspired the creation of one of the most basic and ubiquitous parental technologies now in use. The baby monitor began its life as a techno-optimistic fantasy of perfect vigilance and perfect control, and it has remained just that — a fantasy. Nevertheless, the promise of extending and augmenting parental nurture and protection has driven the marketing and development of much parenting tech since, which has grown to include monitoring tactics absorbed from, or associated with, more suppressive forms of surveillance. Many of these technologies encode the same class-based suspicions of their predecessors. Today, state-of-the-art parenting technologies are frequently designed to monitor not only children, but those suspected of posing harm, making targets out of bystanders and importing state surveillance — inseparable, as Simone Browne has shown, from a history of racial formation and violence — to the home.

If we look back at McDonald’s concerns — yacht not withstanding — we can see that our most extreme fears (kidnapping, death) inflect our most basic, even boring, parenting tech and related activities: flicking on the monitor, putting the baby down for a nap. Surveilling children is part of parenting; and contemporary parenting mores have intensified this basic imperative to watch, even as it is outsourced to care providers both paid and unwaged, to automated machines and their analog counterparts.

The brutal truth is that children are vulnerable, and that this vulnerability is multiple: to their own bodies (“smothering” at mid-century, or Sudden Infant Death Syndrome or SIDS now), external influence, and crime. The danger can come from inside (a favorite blanket), outside (an intruder), or someone who crosses the domestic threshold under the sign of care (a nanny or, in reverse, a daycare center). There have been panics about all of these forms of real and supposed danger — some addressed via medicine and pediatrics (as in the “Back to Sleep” campaign of the 1990s that dramatically reduced SIDS risk) or inflamed via media (the “Satanic Panic” of the same decade, in which widespread satanic ritual sexual abuse was alleged of childcare centers and preschools; a conspiracy theory which targeted, in part, queer women of color). Parental fear is a near universal, but what we fear is not; the primacy of each threat varies by class and race, personal experience and its intergenerational transmission, and history. Children are vulnerable, but not equally so.

We can see that our most extreme fears (kidnapping, death) inflect our most basic, even boring, parenting tech and related activities

In some of these sites of intense parental worry, corporate parenting tech has intervened to supposedly aid and augment parenting, marketing peace of mind. The baby monitor extended parental vigilance, initially for wealthier parents with expansive households, but is now in use by some 75 percent of American parents. Today, more rarefied devices, such as GPS-enabled strollers and kids’ smart watches, lovingly track and surveil children; some do this before birth, tracking pregnancy. These gadgets, part of the $10-billion-dollar-a-year parenting tech industry, are frequently marketed at millennial consumers who can afford to spend $399 on a smart baby monitor, or hire a nanny. They address and often encode the same suspicions as did the analog baby monitor a century ago, but with the aid of new surveillant technologies, many of them linked to law enforcement.

The need to know whether a child is safe and well is perfectly natural, which makes the nature of such surveillance appear innocent. Behind the wholesome sheen, however, these technologies conceal the possibility of false positives, disrupted emergency services, and of collaboration with state forces —  wittingly or unwittingly — all in the name of keeping children safe. Seemingly private, domestic technologies can dovetail with state surveillance, turning parent-to-child surveillance into a dragnet, one that catches other parents and children in its wake.

Perhaps the most striking example is the nanny cam. Starting in the 1990s, the nanny cam appeared as an extension of closed-circuit television and other home security systems, with a twist: Instead of looking to protect the home from the external, the nanny cam turns surveillance inward and blurs it with a family’s urge to document a child’s development. (It was first marketed predominantly on the internet as the “Amazing X10 Camera,” sometimes with the tagline, “see what you’ve been missing.”) A little camera stuffed inside an innocent teddy bear, its cute, breezy, abbreviated name hides the fact that it is a wireless camera placed specifically to monitor, in this case, an employee doing their job.

The nanny cam records and transmits its data to a parent, who watches either as events transpire or, more frequently, after the fact. The footage is necessarily soundless, because the recording of audio without the consent of the person or people speaking is tantamount to wiretapping in the United States and thus illegal (additional laws vary state by state). Sometimes the cameras are concealed from nannies; other times, the nannies are informed that their workplace is under surveillance, either because employers are forced to disclose by contract or to preempt “bad behavior.”

When the first nanny cams were made available, the industry received a boost through the proliferation of amateur footage, sold to television networks (and later spread on the internet), featuring nannies “acting out.” This “fad” had a disciplining effect, intensifying the pressures that childcare workers were subject to in the course of being monitored — recordings had the potential to become a humiliating spectacle, with no possibility of redress. This media circuit also reinforced parental fears over what was happening when they left the house: The will to know, and the hope that knowledge would provide control and a feeling of safety, led many consumers to all the disquiet they’d hoped to leave behind.

When the first nanny cams were made available, the industry received a boost through the proliferation of amateur footage

The relationship that many parents have with paid caregivers, both within the home and without, is complicated. Psychologist Daphne de Marneffe writes, “Turning the care of our newborn, baby, or small child over to another, non-familial person, someone we often have known only briefly, is a momentous emotional and psychological act, even if we pretend that it isn’t.” Joining anxiety and jealousy as part of this psychological matrix are, quite often, sexism, classism, and racism, which date to enslaved women providing care for white mothers and children. In the late 1800s, just as fewer American-born white women were entering the labor market in service positions, middle-class conceptions of who and what a nanny should be were idealized along lines of class and race (towards whiteness, unweddedness, and a middle-class background). Grace Chang and others have shown that this vilification of immigrant domestic workers continues in our present. In the 21st century, nearly all families seeking to hire a full-time nanny belong to the upper classes — nannying is almost always the most expensive form of childcare precisely because it promises greater attention to the child, and greater control for the parent.

Nanny cams are only one form of surveillance that remediates the desire to exert greater control over one’s children through the control of domestic workers: text messages, asking for a stream of photographs, along with collecting and monitoring GPS data, are all methods parents use to monitor their children and their caregivers. Parents who use paid attention and adjunctive care (as opposed to kinship networks) to cover their work schedules often enact some form of education, monitoring, and indeed surveillance over those who care for their kids, even as they’re treated as “part of the family.” This digital attachment and interference, though it retethers a parent at work to their child, compromises the privacy of childcare workers, and even other children. Declining to be observed can send already anxious parents into full suspicion and cost care providers their jobs before they begin.

These surveillance tools are poised at the intersection of care and capture; self-soothing devices that allow parents to feel they have done everything they can do, prosthetically, to exert control over their employees, children, their co-parents, and themselves. Care is a mode that accommodates and justifies surveillance as a practice, framing it as an ethical “good” or security necessity, instead of a political choice.

The convergence of parental anxiety and tech access can extend surveillant care into a total system, reaching past the baby, and any employee in the home or daycare center, to the street beyond. Increasingly, technophilic and/or anxious families are turning to websites like Nextdoor and smart home systems like Alexa, Google Home, Nest Cams, and Ring, not only to help with domestic management, but to reinforce the barrier between the outside and the inside, keeping the outside out. These technologies slip from self-surveillance (when should I reorder my groceries?) to familial surveillance (what is my child watching?) to surveilling anyone who might come into contact with one’s children.

Care is a mode that accommodates and justifies surveillance as a practice, framing it as an ethical “good” instead of a political choice

Ring, which was acquired by Amazon in 2018, already has millions of individual users; it also has partnerships with 600 police precincts. It sells itself as family-friendly, necessary for the protection of home and child, and purports to “watch,” in the ancient sense of keep vigil. But this vigilance can turn into vigilantism, and aid in, or replicate, policing. Just as the nanny cam records just in case the recording itself will be useful, Ring and other tools like it report to their owners, and sometimes simultaneously to police — even against the wishes of their users.

Ultimately, these technologies do precisely what they claim to prevent: open up new pathways for perforating the domestic and the nuclear family, reinforcing the anxieties they purport to soothe. The wi-fi enabled security system encapsulates this irony: all of these cameras can be, and are, routinely hacked. Using two-way audio, hackers have been able not just to monitor people in the privacy of their domestic spheres, but to speak to and harass people there. One parent tore a set of cameras out of the wall after a child said a “scary man” was speaking to her. Several others have reported that some person was demanding payment. The very object that is supposed to watch over the nanny watching over the baby, or to guard the front door, becomes a way in.

Other Smart devices meant to protect children can also terrorize parents, and unevenly so. Since silence on a baby monitor is either golden (the baby is down) or terrifying (the baby isn’t breathing), these devices use biometrics to augment and automate the vigilance of parenthood and distinguish between the two forms of noiselessness. Devices like the Owlet Smart Sock (introduced in 2007 and still in use) address themselves to the parents who stay up to watch their babies breathe, who check and recheck a silent baby monitor for sounds of stirring. These devices, most commonly a smart camera placed over the crib or a piece of clothing that functions as a pulse oximeter, claim that they will notify you if your baby is losing oxygen — preventing tragedy before it can occur. The device’s job is twofold: to help parents monitor the biometrics of their child, and to reduce worry by doing so. But the devices often do more harm than good, because they frequently transmit false positives; and pulse oximeters work unevenly, with decreased accuracy when reading darker skin tones. The result: terrorized new parents, who shift the checking compulsion to their devices just as fervently and report a higher incidence of depression and sleeplessness. The false positives even clog pediatric emergency services.

Parents watching their children is an unimpeachable mode of care; surveillance is conventionally and conveniently associated with state power and its abuses. In tracing the history of child monitoring, however, we can see that these two forms of monitoring are less distinct than they might appear. The use of parenting tech to ensure child safety may be read as an individual parent’s choice, but the reach of these technologies expands through alliance with state forces (for example, Ring’s partnership with police precincts) and by exploiting those prejudices long established in childcare conventions. The uneven yet pervasive usage and advertisement of these technologies — let alone other technologies that proceed under the guise of care, like facial recognition in schools and in homes, in the age of Covid-19 — show the lengths that parents are willing to go, the moral and political compromises many are willing to make, and the alliances some are willing to forge in order to feel protected from the universal nightmare of losing a child.

Hannah Zeavin is a Lecturer in the Departments of English and History at UC Berkeley, and a faculty affiliate of the University of California at Berkeley Center for Science, Technology, Medicine, and Society.  Her research focuses on the coordinated histories of technology and medicine. Zeavin is the author of The Distance Cure: A History of Teletherapy (MIT Press, August 2021) and at work on her second book, Mother’s Little Helpers: Technology in the American Family (MIT Press, 2023). Other work has appeared or is forthcoming in differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, Logic Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Slate, and beyond.