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‘Better us than the FSB’ A private company in Russia has launched a service for parents that monitors children's social media activity

Source: Meduza
Thomas Koehler / photothek images UG / Alamy / Vida Press

On September 27, a Russian company called SocialDataHub launched “Parental Control,” a new service that allows parents to monitor their children’s activity on social media. At just 150 rubles ($2.50) a month, the service analyzes children’s likes, subscriptions, photos, and comments, sending notifications to parents when a child shows a strong interest in “radical ideas” or starts “planning criminal activity,” or when an adult Internet user directs threatening behavior at the child. “Parental Control” will also notify parents when the child has started watching pornography, suggesting that perhaps it’s time to discuss the birds and the bees. Meduza’s Pavel Merzlikin learned more about this new service.

SocialDataHub is a Russian company specializing in Big Data

Artur Khachuyan, the company’s founder, told Meduza that he worked as head of the cybernetics department at Tina Kandelaki’s advertising agency “Apostol,” until 2014. Khachuyan and a colleague left Kandelaki’s firm and founded SocialDataHub, specializing in the development of artificial intelligence systems and Big Data. Analyzing open-source data (for example, the hobbies social media users list publicly in their profiles), SocialDataHub can find potential clients for certain commercial companies, and help them develop advertising strategies.

SocialDataHub also works with Russian government media outlets and publications with ties to the Kremlin (such as the news agencies RIA Novosti and TASS, as well as the tabloid Life), helping them conduct investigations. For instance, the company worked for Life, finding and listing pedophile online communities, and also helped identify the suicide bomber who attacked the St. Petersburg subway earlier this year (though Khachuyan refuses to say what media outlet hired his company for this job).

Working as a completely different legal entity (a separate company called “Fubutech”), the same team of developers and analysts works with Russian state agencies. In part, the company develops software to help police find people on social networks who are under investigation: murderers, pedophiles, and other criminals. But Khachuyan refuses to say precisely which state agencies contract Fubutech for this kind of work. Currently, he says there are about 50 people employed at his company.

Artur Khachuyan lectures on whether terrorists can be identified by their “digital trails.” (In Russian)

On September 27, SocialDataHub launched “Parental Control” for monitoring schoolchildren on social media

The service’s catchy slogan reads, “Better us than the FSB [Federal Security Service].” For just 150 rubles ($2.50) a month, the company promises to notify parents if their children show a strong interest in weapons, suicide, or drugs, if they start writing nationalist or extremist posts, or if they join an online community that shares illegal content. The service also tracks children’s friends on social media, warning parents if their kids are contacted by “suspicious individuals” (potential pedophiles and other criminals). “Parental Control” can even give parents recommendations for universities and professions, based on their children’s online hobbies.

Within a day of launching the service, Khachuyan says more than 1,700 parents signed up. The company screens all new clients, confirming that they really are the parents of the children who will be monitored. The parents are also asked to provide a hyperlink to their children’s social media accounts, or SocialDataHub can also find them itself.

Speaking to Meduza, Khachuyan explained that he got the idea for “Parental Control” after an investigation published by the newspaper Novaya Gazeta about online communities promoting youth suicide, and after listening to friends tell him about their children posting extremist content and sharing intimate photos on the Internet.

SocialDataHub stresses that it uses only open-source data from social media

Khachuyan told Meduza that his company won’t monitor children’s direct messages and won’t track the websites children visit beyond social media networks. The monitoring process applies to publicly visible comments, photos, posts, likes, and so on. The service also monitors users’ friends lists, warning parents when their children befriend an adult with ties to online communities related to child pornography, for instance.

“We have a huge amount of open-source data and the opportunity to warn the parents of children who could be in harm’s way. For example, say you know that a kid is going to bring a gun to school. You’ve got a choice: warn the authorities, warn the parents, or just ignore it. I think you need to warn the parents. And remember that it’s not me or the company that’s deciding to monitor these children, but their own parents. All we’re doing is helping them avoid the need to review a million comments manually, by offering them a little computer magic,” Khachuyan explained.

Khachuyan says “Parent Control” will track children’s comments and alert parents only in the event of potentially real danger. The service will also let parents know when it’s time to talk to their kids about sex, if their children “like” any pornographic content on social media. SocialDataHub says it won’t tell parents specifically what kind of pornography their children were watching, but the company does provide parents will a full copy of any extremist content posted by their children.

Children can hide from “Parental Control” by creating fake accounts

Khachuyan says SocialDataHub won’t alert children when the company begins monitoring them, but individuals who do realize they’re being tracked can evade “Parental Control” by hiding behind fake social media accounts. The fake account would have to be completely unaffiliated with the original account, however. If the two accounts have so much as any shared friends, the fake could still trip SocialDataHub’s sensors and trigger many of the same content warnings sent to parents.

“I believe that I’m obligated to warn the parents, and not law enforcement, if an underage person starts getting up to some bullshit. The joke about ‘Better us than the FSB’ is a serious one. It’s better for a parent to get a notification,” Khachuyan told Meduza. “But of course everything should be within reasonable limits. [There shouldn’t be monitoring of] personal correspondence, and that sort of thing.”

Internet activists say this data could reach third parties

Artem Kozlyuk, the head of “Roskomsboboda” (a watchdog group that monitors the Russian government’s Internet activities) told Meduza that parents should consider the privacy risks before signing up for “Parental Control.” “The surveillance of children is a very sensitive thing. Whatever a company’s security, there’s always a risk of the data leaking onto the black market, given the inevitable human factor. It all depends on the value of the data in question, and it seems to me that many people would be willing to pay big money for data about children. The idea of sharing information about your own kids with a business enterprise is very questionable. Unfortunately, however, a lot of us don’t grasp the importance of personal data,” Kozlyuk said, arguing that parents would be better off using content filters on children’s devices, blocking unwanted websites, if they want to protect their kids from something online.

Speaking to Meduza, Denis Davydov, the director of the League for a Safe Internet, said he agrees that the main danger of a service like “Parental Control” is that children’s personal data could find its way to third parties, but his group still supports the initiative. “Generally, we think the more services like this, the better. Because studies show that only 20 percent of Russians use parental controls when it comes to their children’s Internet use, and the rest are just doing this manually, with bad results,” Davydov said.

Defending itself against privacy concerns, SocialDataHub says it only works with information that’s already publicly available. “In fact, anyone who wants to can already view all this information. Third parties already have access,” Khachuyan argues.

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Russian text by Pavel Merzlikin, translation by Kevin Rothrock