Threat Model: Parents

Shawn K. Quinn skquinn at
Sun May 31 01:21:45 PDT 2015

On Sat, 2015-05-30 at 22:24 -0400, Gadit Bielman wrote:
> Hi.
> I'm trying to help (probably badly, but..) a friend deal with parents
> that they expect are spying on them.
> I know that in general, it's impossible to secure a computer that you
> can't trust and don't necessarily have administrator privileges to.
This is correct.
> But their parents are not exactly the NSA -- any spying that's
> happening is almost definitely some sort of product, plus basic things
> like maybe looking through their history. (I don't know much about
> they're situation -- maybe they know more, so
> well-if-you-know-they-do-this-then-you-could-do-this type advice would
> still be helpful.)
It could be any number of things. Some ISPs even sell access packages
with "family-friendly" filtering built in. Spyware or logging of sites
accessed wouldn't be too far of a leap from this.
> Would antivirus be able to detect spy-on-your-kids products? Would
> they be able to scan their computer with like Immunet or something,
> even if they didn't have administrator privileges?
By their nature, I would expect most garden variety anti-spyware
packages to not consider "parental control" type tools as spyware and
not detect them. They certainly aren't viruses. I think most
anti-spyware tools on Windows require administrator access to run.
> Tor would probably help -- unless the monitoring was looking at the
> RAM or something for website names, which would be way overkill on a
> commercial product, no? Or (more likely) if it was taking screenshots
> at regular intervals, which would also break running a VM or
> something. (Is there any way to detect taking screenshots?)

There's no easy way to detect screenshots being taken. You would need to
check the local hard disk for copies of the screenshots, and outbound
network traffic for something that could be a screenshot being uploaded.
This is difficult at best without administrator access.
> I know probably the best thing would be running TAILS as a LiveCD --
> the problem with that is that it's REALLY obvious over-the-shoulder.
It would be best, but it may not be possible if the computer is secured
correctly. The parent threat model (as a minor child) is a particularly
tough nut to crack. Even if you subvert the technical spying measures,
there could be consequences for doing so. At least where I live in the
US, minors can't own property legally, so parents can spy on a computer
that  "belongs to" their kids.

If your friend's parents feel the need to spy on his/her Internet
access, there are issues beyond the technological ones. There is a basic
lack of trust on the part of the parents, possibly caused by their poor
parenting of your friend when he/she was younger, that needs to be
addressed. In other words, find out why they feel spying is necessary.
In the meantime, your friend may want to do the majority of his/her
Internet access from the local library; it may not be completely
uncensored but there is a much lower chance of being individually spied
on there.

Shawn K. Quinn <skquinn at>

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