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Privacy Perspectives | Elf on the Shelf and Giving the Gift of Surveillance Related reading: Circle Makes Us Square




So I learned about the Elf-on-the-Shelf phenomenon the other day (can you tell I don't have kids?) after a coworker confessed she went against her parental policy and bought one for her child. While it may be filling up my Facebook news feed with amusingly suggestive poses for Santa’s Little Helper (and Barbie), the concept is a bit creepy and alarming in this big data, post-Snowden world.

For the unfamiliar, Elf on the Shelf is based on a children’s book and has been all the rage for young children for several Christmases. The $30 doll is meant to keep tabs on children and report back to Santa on their behavior. Parents are supposed to move the doll to a different spot each day leading up to Christmas, emphasizing the elf's constant vigilance.

But here’s the thing with this phenomenon: Many children want to be spied upon. They want to prove they’re being good so they get what they want for Christmas. It’s this extension and normalizing of surveillance culture that is concerning.

Now, I’m not the first one to write about this. Alex Steed wrote an excellent column in the Bangor Daily News on why he’s not buying one for his daughter and why we should feel uncomfortable extending and normalizing surveillance culture into our homes. He writes,

format_quoteHaving been molded by this age of NSA overreach, Snowden, Wikileaks and Anonymous, what bothers me most is that inviting Elf on the Shelf into the home unnecessarily extends surveillance culture into a place that should be free of it. Santa Claus is a myth that at best represents generosity at its finest. But with the elf, we choose to emphasize his surveillance. That is really weird.

As we’ve seen before, surveillance is often paved with good intentions. We see it all over the place with corporate wellness programs, car insurance and even aid to the poor. Do you want to take part in a wellness program? You better be ready to share lots of your personal health information. How about a lower car insurance rate? Plug in this car recorder for a month so we can check your driving habits. And humanitarian aid? Those who receive it often undergo iris scans and the collection of other biometric data.

You see, if you’re not doing anything wrong, you shouldn’t have anything to hide from Santa, right?

This concept was played out in full in Dave Eggers’ novel The Circle. In his book review last year, Sam Pfeifle wrote,

format_quoteThis is a world where everybody-gets-a-trophyism has met narcissism unchecked alongside do-gooderism run rampant, creating hordes of otherwise bright people who have no problem whatsoever—even pine for—allowing their employers to know where they are at all times, every tiny health detail, heck, every little thing at all. Who can only see the benefits of tracking every child’s movement with a chip in the ankle. Who fall prey to—nay, come up of their own accord with—slogans like ‘secrets are lies,’ ‘sharing is caring’ and, here’s the kicker, folks, ‘privacy is theft.’

Plus, the old school Letter to Santa business may be coming to an end. Why tell him what you want, when “a careful evaluation of your search and browsing histories as well as other elements of your online footprint” can tell the elves everything they need to know. For more on this ultimate data-mining Santa Claus, I recommend you read this letter from him to “Tommy.” (This is a COPPA-compliant letter, of course!)

What I found the most disturbing, however, were the very nonfictional comments made by Judge Richard Posner about surveillance in the name of national security. “I think privacy is actually overvalued,” he said. “Much of what passes for the name of privacy is really just trying to conceal the disreputable parts of your conduct … Privacy is mainly about trying to improve your social and business opportunities by concealing the sorts of bad activities that would cause other people not to want to deal with you.”

So, according to Posner, privacy is selfish and a means to protect your bad deeds? We’ve seen this argument before, and we’ve seen how it has more holes than Swiss cheese. Just ask U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

As privacy pros continue to remind their organizations why privacy is important, let’s remember it also starts in the home. This Christmas season, be good for goodness' sake. But not because the elves are watching. 

photo credit: mbaylor via photopin cc


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