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I spy … my children!

When Jayant Reddy found money going missing from his house, the domestic help was the automatic suspect. But the thefts continued even after the employee was sacked. That’s when the Hyderabad-based businessman noticed that his 20-year-old college-going son was suddenly flaunting a lavish lifestyle. “He was wearing branded watches and shoes, and dining out every evening,” says Rajender Khanna, chief investigation advisor, Third Eye Intelligence Bureau, who helped Reddy solve the whodunit, three months ago.

To get to the truth, Reddy gifted his son an expensive iPhone mobile handset — which had been loaded with an FRX-Pro software. The software service — provided by Third Eye and costing Rs 40,000 per month — sent Reddy daily email updates of conversations and text messages sent from the iPhone.

“The father found out that his son had been betting big money on the Indian Premier League cricket series,” recalls Khanna.

Reddy is not alone. Like him, many urban Indian parents are turning into digital detectives intent on prying into the activities of their children.

Phone traps help monitor who their children are talking and texting to. GPS trackers installed in mobile phones serve as location tracking devices. And spyware software on computers helps parents pry on their children’s online goings-on.

This year Khanna’s detective and spy product agency has sold the FRX Pro software service to as many as nine customers in Hyderabad, who bought it to snoop into their children’s lives. “Using spy products has become the newest way in which parents are keeping tabs on their children’s activities,” says Khanna.

Ali Khwaja, head, Banjara Academy, a Bangalore-based counselling centre, says that children growing up with technology — cellphones, instant messaging and the Internet — are giving rise to a new set of parenting rules and tactics. “Parents worry about the shady digital spaces their children might be hanging out in. So they are themselves using technology to pry into their wards’ lives,” he says, adding that the easy availability and affordability of web cameras, GPS trackers and phone traps has also helped parents to turn into private eyes.

In Calcutta, though, investigative agencies say that it is fairly rare for parents to take recourse to electronic surveillance to find out about what their children are up to. T.K. Das, regional manager at Calcutta’s Globe Detective Agency, says the few parents who do spy on their children come from very affluent backgrounds. “The parents almost always trust their own kids. What causes concern are their children’s friends,” he says.

In other cities, though, the situation is quite different. “Enquiries for spy cameras and GPS trackers are pouring in from parents,” says R.K. Sharma, director of Security First, a Mumbai-based spy product dealer. He adds that spy cameras — especially the table clock camera, which costs Rs 8,000 — have been flying off the shelves. “We sell 10 table clock cameras a day to parents. It’s a handy device because it can be kept on the computer table, where it records a child’s nocturnal online activities,” says Sharma.

A global survey shows that Indian parents are not the only ones keeping an electronic eye on their offspring. When software company AVG Technologies surveyed 4,400 parents with children in the age group of 14 to 17 years, in 11 countries, it found that 44 per cent parents spied on their teens’ Facebook accounts. American parents led the race in online snooping, says the survey, released in April this year. Sixty per cent of US parents of teenagers said they were okay about looking into their children’s social media accounts without their knowledge.

When Delhi-based spy product dealer Action India Home Products (AIHP) — that supplies CCTVs, spy cameras, GPS trackers and bugs to detective agencies and private firms — opened a showroom in the city’s Patel Nagar area two years ago, it was mainly to cater to a growing number of individual clients. “Private users are increasingly buying spy products. A majority of them are parents, who say they want to know what their children are doing outside the house or behind closed doors at night,” says Parminder Singh, assistant manager, AIHP.

The demand, says Singh, is mostly for phone traps, spy cameras and the key-logger software for laptops, that costs Rs 6,000. “This software lets parents know what sites their children have been surfing.”

Besides, there are apps for smartphones that can track location, SMS, emails, and phone calls. For example, Footprints — an iPhone app that allows parents to track their children’s location almost in real time. Other apps include SpyBubble (which offers a packaged set of tracking tools), StealthGenie, which tracks SMS, app usage, location, and calls, and so on.

However, sometimes it doesn’t take the tech-savvy teens long to figure out that there’s something fishy with their phone or that fancy table clock, admits Singh. “A father who loaded a GPS tracker on his son’s phone reported that the teenager would just keep the phone off or say that he forgot it at a friend’s home,” he recalls, adding that many parents also complain that their children always erase the history of the websites they surf on the Internet.

But when they don’t manage to do that, chances are that the parents will cotton on to whatever secret life the children might be leading. Last year, a Chennai-based software engineer couple, Achyuta and Aditi Srinivasan, couldn’t imagine what had gone wrong in their 12-year-old daughter Amrita’s life. “She used to be a class topper, but her grades suddenly fell. She never went out with friends, but spent hours surfing the Internet,” recalls A.M. Malathy, head, Malathy Detective Agency, Chennai, to whom the Srinivasans went for help.

Malathy figured the mystery lay in Amrita’s online life. She suggested that the Srinivasans install a snooping spyware software on her computer. “They found that Amrita had befriended a middle-aged man through a chat site. He had introduced her to pornography websites,” says Malathy. It needed professional counselling to get Amrita to overcome her Internet addiction.

Malathy — who heads a team of 50 detectives — says the most popular service her agency offers is “teenage monitoring”. “As drug addiction and multiple sexual relationships become common among college students, a lot of parents approach us to shadow their children and keep tabs on their lives,” she says. The agency charges Rs 15,000 for a child spy assignment.

Some experts believe that parents snooping on their children do so because of sheer paranoia. Says Delhi-based clinical psychologist Aruna Broota, “Urban Indians today are overloaded with information on road rage, drugs, sex, murder and homosexuality. This is causing parents paranoia — they fear the worst will happen to their children and want to know everything they do behind their backs,” she explains.

Amit Tripathi was one such paranoid parent. The marketing head of a corporate company approached Broota for counselling last year. Tripathi said his son spent hours locked in his room, did not return home many nights and barely spoke with his parents. He worried that his son was up to some mischief and hired a private detective to find out the goings-on in his life, recalls Broota.

There’s also a trust deficit between parents and children, says counsellor Khwaja. “Trust levels have dipped because of a growing communication gap between the two generations. So spy cameras do the job of a heart-to-heart conversation,” he says.

Bhavna Paliwal, head of Delhi-based Tejas Detectives, agrees. “Many a time parents want their children shadowed for no reason. They say they don’t have the time to find out what is happening in their child’s life, so they want a detective to do it for them,” she says. Paliwal — who charges Rs 30,000 per assignment — says four out of every 10 sleuthing cases she gets come from parents of teenage children.

Interestingly, the instances of parents wanting to snoop on their children seem to shoot up during the summer vacations. “That is when the children have time on their hands and parents don’t. So they buy spy cameras and hire detectives to play ghost nannies,” says Rahul Rai, senior associate, Veteran Investigation Services, Mumbai. This year, VIS got 130 such cases during the vacation months — up from 20 cases in the same period last year.

But Khwaja warns that though spy products may get results in the short term, they can cause permanent damage to relationships. “If children find out, they go from being hurt and angry to permanently disconnected from their parents. Many hold a life-long grudge against their folks,” he says.

But that is not something most prying parents are overly concerned with. As their children grow up and grow away from them, all they want to do is to find out whatever is going on in their offspring’s lives.