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If I Use Surveillance Cameras, Am I Spying?

I recently mentioned to a group of moms at a dinner party that I have surveillance cameras installed in my house. The cameras allow me to look in on my family from wherever I am, which I love. I was pleased with myself. But the looks of shock and dismay on the faces at the table made it clear that using technology this way is controversial. Then came the questions: “You spy on your kids?!” “Wow! What are you, NSA Mom?” “Do your kids like you?” I am not spying. I’m not a covert government agency. And, yes, my kids like me. Most of the objections seemed to be based on misconceptions about how these cameras play out in my relationship with my family. None of these moms had actually tried this technology, so they were probably reacting to the word “surveillance,” which I’ll admit may not have been the best moniker. So I started telling stories that show how I'm not spying—I'm using this technology as a way to connect with my kids. How It Works Yes, it's true, these cameras give me a live feed of what is going on at my house right now. I can open an app on my phone, from wherever I am (down the street, 3,000 miles away) and look in on my own living room or any room where I have installed a camera. (In my house, that’s the kitchen, family room and homework room.) The image is a little choppy—sort of like a time-lapse image sped up—but it’s very clear. And the cameras can see well even if the room is dark. So this is certainly a technology that could be used as an instrument to spy on, mistrust and alienate my kids. But in itself it's just a collection of machines. How I use it is up to me. I do not use it to spy. I do trust my kids. And I have no desire to alienate them. I use it to visit with my family when I’m away. The distinction may seem subtle. But it is important. First of all, the cameras are not a secret. I showed them to everyone: my husband, both teenagers, the dog, the cat. Everyone knows they are there. None of them are in private spaces. They are only in rooms where you might expect to run into another family member. Any of them could be easily disabled simply by unplugging them. And when I look in on my family—if I’m traveling or at my office, for example—I usually (if someone is there) also text them to wave “Hi!” and say I’m looking in on them. I do not show the feed to anyone else. Not even the moms at my dinner party. It's a Lot of Fun This camera thing is fun. But if you are still imagining me spying, I’d better tell some anecdotes. My daughter Ava, age 14, got a new kitten right before I left. So, when I knew she was home, I texted her to come out of her room and show me the cat on one of the cameras. She texted back, "Family room." And I loaded that camera. The kitten is frisky. We also have a bird. Hilarious cat videos ensued. Ava had fun. I had fun. The cat had fun. (The bird hid in his cage.) And I got to spend a few minutes laughing with my daughter even though I’m very far from home. On a day when I was eating alone and missing a family dinner, my daughter sent me a text: “Go to the camera.” So I launched the app on my smartphone (even though I was in a restaurant), typed in my password, and there she was eating an ice cream. “Nana bought these,” she told me via text, holding up the ice cream. “Mmmm, good. You are missing out!” She dragged my mother over to the camera to wave, blew me a kiss and went back to her desert. It was a very nice way to spend a moment that I otherwise would have spent returning work emails while I waited for my food. And yesterday, while I was saying good night to her on the phone, Ava asked, “Did you see me cooking dinner?” I didn't. I don’t actually spend all day watching the house. But she clearly thinks I’m there—like a ghost—keeping an eye on her even though I’m quite far away. I like that. But I do check in frequently, briefly, to reassure myself everything is fine. In fact, I looked in this morning to make sure the kids hadn't skipped school and saw that, though no one was home, the front door was wide open. I sent a text to a neighbor, who came over, closed and locked the door, and checked on the pets. Moms Want This By the time I was done telling tales of warm, fuzzy interactions through surveillance cameras at my dinner party, everyone had changed their tune. No longer was I Creepy Stalker Mom. Everyone wanted to know what it cost. The answer: Not that much. There are lots of ways to set this sort of thing up. Some of the cameras I use are part of an in-home security system. (That can be costly. But it also alerts my phone if the fire alarm goes off and lets me lock doors remotely.) Setting up a stand-alone camera is inexpensive. Most of them use your Wi-Fi network and have no service fees. I recently installed the Samsung PetCam ($149). It was easy to set up. And it has a nice password-protected smartphone app. It allows you to install up to 10 cameras in your home and choose which to look at from your phone or the Web. It runs over Wi-Fi but doesn't use your bandwidth unless you are looking through the camera. And—best part!—it lets you talk to your kids (or pets) through the camera. What do you think? Would you “spy” on your kids? Christina Tynan-Wood has been covering technology since the dawn of the Internet and currently writes the Family Tech column for Family Circle. You can find more advice about buying and using technology at Follow her on Twittter!

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