Spying Technology and the End of Family Trust

Family members have an increasing capacity to spy on each other using hidden cameras, GPS trackers and the like. Common applications of these ever-developing technologies include sussing out an unfaithful spouse and detecting when a teenager has driven the family car over the speed limit.

Robert Mendick’s article largely follows the usual line of media coverage of this phenomenon: Awesome new technology used, cad (or caddette) caught in flagrante, justice served, age-old human problem solved!

But to his credit, Mendick strays from the standard script by mentioning another possible outcome:

Dr Diletta Bianchini, 35, a doctor working at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London, hired a detective agency to place a GPS tracking device beneath the car of her husband William Sachiti, convinced that rather than working late he was conducting an illicit liaison. Mr Sachiti, an entrepreneur, spotted the tracker’s light flashing under his car. Thinking it was a bomb, he called the police. As police proceeded to cordon off Sutton high street in Surrey, Mr Sachiti spoke to his wife, who had to admit what she had done. “I’m just so sorry it happened,” Dr Bianchini told newspapers last week. “It was a huge mistake and I was out of my mind”.

I wish Mendick had described how the couple’s relationship was affected by this incident. I likewise wonder how a parent’s relationship to adolescent children changes when the latter discover that their driving habits are being covertly monitored despite a truthful declaration of minding the speed limit. And how does a husband explain to his wife that there is no money for a family vacation this year because he spent $3,000 on a private detective to prove that she was every bit as faithful as she had promised?

No psychologist would deny that many of the most devastating emotional injuries human beings experience are inflicted by deeply trusted family members (e.g., wayward spouses, backstabbing siblings, exploitative parents). It is entirely understandable that people want to avoid such agony and that some of them reach for technology that seems to promise insulation. But the spying technology itself, as an concrete expression of suspicion, has the capacity to destroy the trust and vulnerability that can make family life one of the most richly rewarding experiences in human existence.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

10 thoughts on “Spying Technology and the End of Family Trust”

  1. “I likewise wonder how a parent’s relationship to adolescent children changes when the latter discover that their driving habits are being covertly monitored despite a truthful declaration of minding the speed limit.”

    Or the kid puts a video on youtube of the parent beating the crap out of them.

  2. Keith, there are lots of issues with this kind of technology generally and its effects on privacy, but the one you point to here doesn’t seem like that much of a problem to me. First, this kind of technology makes spying easier but spying didn’t start with this. You mention private investigators in passing and they’ve been used for a long time now: the image of a gumshoe bursting into a hotel room to snap a photo of the couple in bed is well-worn cultural trope.

    Second when I think about the couple you describe, I don’t think this episode is their biggest challenge — it’s her suspicions, which I think can accurately be described as corrosive. They may be justified, they may be entirely imaginary, but what I don’t see is how this couple could have gone on in this way regardless. That’s what would have the biggest impact on their marriage, not this event.

    Perhaps your position is that increasingly easy access to this kind of technology will make people more suspicious, or tempt people who have suspicions but have decided that they don’t want to know, dig deeper in a way that will undermine trust. Maybe, but that’s a harder argument to make.

  3. It might not be too long until there’s a cheap scanner for home use which will tell if a spouse is emitting an adulterer’s characteristic odors, or an about-to-be adulterer’s brainwaves. “We see indications in your wave forms of probable past fraud and theft behaviors. So . . . we believe this indicates you’ve gotten it out of your system, and will now have a stellar career here with us at Gigant Bank and Trust.”

  4. @larry birnbaum:

    There’s a big difference in consequences between having corrosive suspicions and acting on them.

    Cheaper surveillance technologies lower the barrier between being suspicious and acting in ways that are abusive.

    Most people are going to think much harder about hiring a 24×7 minder for $1000+ a day to make sure their teenager doesn’t break the speed limit than they will think about installing a $3000 GPS logger as a one-off expense.

    Price signals help keep people from going too far.

  5. “$3000 GPS logger.”

    Probably a couple of hundred now, and getting less. One could probably buy a cell phone with GPS, set the recording to on for the account, and leave it in the car. Afterwards, they’d have an extra phone.

    1. My kid’s on my cell family plan. For like 3 bucks a month, I can have his cell phone location monitored. He doesn’t have GPS on his phone (and could turn it off anyways), but they’ll triangulate between cell towers and pin him down to a rough area.

      Enough to tell, for instance, whether he’s at school or not.

      He could of course turn off his phone, but we have a house rule — he got the phone so we could get ahold of him when need be. If we can’t, he doesn’t need a phone.

      Currently we don’t track his location, but it’s really easy to do. Same with my phone or my wife’s — both of us have GPS.

  6. @Curmudgeon (and everybody else): the prices you’re talking about are high by a couple orders of magnitude. For someone who has access to the target and isn’t crazy and profligate enough to hire a private detective, a bluetooth-accessible GPS logger goes for less than $100. If your errant spouse or child has a smartphone, just turn on location services (or download a GPS logging app and find out from a friendly geek how to make it not show up in the usual notifications). That’s free, except for the investment of time.

    Just to be a devil’s advocate, I’m going to suggest that the past 50-100 years have been an anomaly as far as privacy goes. Transportation technology briefly exceeded the reach of our eyes, ears and gossip networks. Ubiquitous un-notified communications technology has extended our sight and hearing in ways that essentially bring us back to previous centuries’ norms.

  7. It seems to me, Keith, that you’re pinning the blame in the wrong place. The real problems here, it seems to me, is that society (US society, but all societies really) operates on a bunch of myths, and is now upset that these myths are being exposed as false. Those myths include things like
    – teenagers are just baby adults, as responsible and honest as 30 yr olds and with the same motivations OR
    – spouses never engage in flings with other people — and when they do those flings are the most important thing in the world, worth destroying a marriage over

    It’s not at all clear to me why keeping these sorts of myths alive is of any particular value. If teenagers were treated appropriately (which doesn’t mean whipping the hell out of them, but which does mean not assuming they have the self-control of adults); if spouses were more forgiving of minor marital infractions; and if our society (eg media) didn’t continue to perpetuate these myths (ie make teenagers feel they are being unfairly treated when parents restrict their behaviors and make important decisions for them, make spouses feel the correct response to learning their partner slept one time with some stranger at a convention in Vegas is to start an ugly divorce and destroy the family) we’d all be better off.

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