A very young girl using a smart phone and my plea to Esther Ghey about children's privacy. Credit Bicanski via Wikimedia Commons
A very young girl using a smart phone and my plea to Esther Ghey about children's privacy. Credit Bicanski via Wikimedia Commons

A year on from the murder of her daughter, the trial barely being over, the media still desperate to make her killers famous and the Prime Minister refusing to apologise for transphobia; I cannot stress how much I admire the strength of Esther Ghey. But I must warn against the path she is taking.

In media interviews recently Esther Ghey and Brianna Ghey’s headteacher Emma Mills have been speaking about the impact of the internet on young people. Mills noted one of the teenage killer’s claim that they accessed the “dark web” using “TOR” and viewed disturbing content there (which some claim is unlikely!)

Esther Ghey on the other hand is campaigning for the introduction of “children’s phones” which are linked to parent’s devices and alert the parent whenever suspicious content is downloaded or searched for.

Indeed it is a fact that throughout the court reporting social media apps like Whatsapp and access to disturbing content such as information regarding serial killers was not an uncommon theme. We even know exactly what websites the youths accessed before, during and after discussing their plans to murder Brianna Ghey.

I can sympathise with how tempting it is to believe that had those searches or conversations set off alarms for the parents of these youths they might have been able to stop it. I just don’t think its realistic – not least because these things are already possible and easily evaded by a youth with any savvy at all.

For example you could, right now, download to your PC a program called Adguard. Once installed you simply log into your router settings and change the DNS settings to go through Adguard. Every device on your network will now be subject to its filtering, alerts and protection policies – which you can set to your leisure.

If your router does not support changing DNS servers you can always change these for each individual device you want included instead by navigating through the device’s settings.

The above only works while the device running the Adguard server is powered on and connected to your home network, so you may want to dig out an old laptop you can leave on to use as an Adguard server. If you want to ensure a complete invasion of your child’s privacy even when they aren’t directly connected to your home network you may want to look into creating a VPN tunnel from their device to your home network.

There you go, a complete invasion of your child’s privacy! Sort of… these solutions don’t work with apps that have end to end encryption, such as Whatsapp – an app the murderers used and deleted messages from according to court reporting. They also probably wouldn’t work with privacy focused browsers such as the TOR* browser also mentioned in court.

*A short and probably not super accurate description of how TOR browsing works is that its kind of like pass the parcel but you’re all wearing masks and playing it in the dark while swapping places. It basically passes around the packets of data that allow you to view a website amongst many people with only one of you having the key that allows you to read it and nobody knowing who that is.

These solutions also wouldn’t work with any services designed to thwart them which have existed for about as long as these filtering services have. 20 years ago when I was in school we were savvy enough to know how to use a proxy to get around school filters to play games or go on sites we weren’t supposed to be on. Anyone remember SFOGS?

Things haven’t really gotten more complex since then. The same basic methods of evading online filtering and surveillance still work; connect to a computer not subject to the filter and have that do the work for you. Sure, you can tell they’ve accessed the proxy, you can block that specific proxy even. But they’ll just find another, and another and another and another.

There’s no shortage of people providing private internet access, often even for free, specifically because there’s no shortage of invasive internet surveillance. States like China have employed such strict surveillance its been given its own nickname; The Great Firewall. And it still does not work with Chinese citizens being able to thwart it in a myriad of ways including by simply referring to things they want to talk about in code and analogy on the filtered net.

A whole authoritarian state has not been able to make this work despite decades of trying whereas the UK government couldn’t even update the NHS’ computers.

If the fact it doesn’t work isn’t enough for my plea to Esther Ghey and those supporting this kind of internet surveillance in the UK, then how about the ways it can be used to abuse?

I have no doubt that should Esther Ghey set up filtering on her own home network it would include alerts for dangerous topics; drugs, violence etc. But neither I, Esther Ghey nor anyone else can guarantee the same for any other parent. Some parents would seek to have alerts if their children are searching for topics relating to queerness as a means of enacting abusive conversion efforts.

It’s already happening too. Transphobes have literally invented a disease, Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria, often shortened to ROGD. They claim that youth are being influenced by social media into becoming transgender. They have used this to engage in abusive practices such as restricting their child’s access to social media, forms of media that encourage “gender ideology” and even who they are friends with.

ROGD doesn’t actually exist and there is no scientific backing for this disease to exist. It’s literally just how a handful of anti-trans parents are choosing to try and justify their bigoted distaste for their transgender and/or questioning children. The best evidence provided for it in the paper is literally just the testimony of anti-trans parents from an anti-trans website. But they don’t care! They’re going to do it anyway!

We can’t trust parents to filter out the right things because some parents are not good parents. The dangers this poses to youth, especially queer youth, is immeasurable. So who do we look to next to decide what is and isn’t filtered? The government? The same one that is currently refusing to apologise to Esther Ghey and her family for its transphobic remarks? The one that’s also waging war against queer youth? That government?

I sympathise completely with Esther Ghey. Its easy to see a problem, start looking for solutions and then get caught up in the idea of all the good you could do with it. But there’s always the other foot just waiting to drop. In this case its all the ways in which filtering and censorship could be used to enable doing horrible things to especially vulnerable people.

My plea to Esther Ghey is to speak with experts in the tech sector. There’s absolutely no shortage of trans people who both a) absolutely know their stuff about all of this and b) want nothing but the best for trans and other queer people. I don’t think any of them will advise you to pursue this path of filtering, censorship and invading your child’s privacy.

Its hard to find good answers for how best to protect children online, its very easy to find bad ones. Please, proceed with incredible caution.