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Internet System Lets Parents Spy on Day Care

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High-quality child care is supposed to give parents the peace of mind they need to be productive during the workday. Still, knowing that they can use their desktop computers to check in on the little ones via the Internet is likely to be a tempting diversion.

A small but growing number of child-care centers are installing stationary cameras that produce digital photographs that parents can view when they log on to the World Wide Web. The photos are updated every 30 seconds.

The technology is being marketed as a high-tech way to relieve working parents' anxiety about putting their young children in child care. And for some center owners, it's also the newest way to stand out in a highly competitive crowd.

"We were looking for something that no one else had," said Joni Tubbergen, a co-owner of Bright Start Preschool and Day Care in Freemont, Mich., which opened just two months ago. "It says we are confident enough about our program that we're on camera."

But some child advocates say these systems are no replacement for real parent participation and trusting relationships with caregivers.

"The desire to be the fly on the wall is so strong, I don't blame parents for wanting to have this," said Ellen Lubell, a spokeswoman for the Child Care Action Campaign, a New York City-based advocacy organization. "But we're concerned that some parents will think that if they can tune in, then they can monitor the situation. They'll forgo some of the ongoing involvement they need to have."

Is It Safe?

"Kiddie cams," as they've been called, also raise questions about privacy and security, despite the developers' assurances that the programs are safe from pedophiles, for example.

"We use an operating system that hasn't been cracked yet," said Pat Martin, a co-owner of the Simplex Knowledge Co., which now has its "I See You" program installed in four centers around the country. The first was installed about a year ago.

A variety of Internet security devices are used, and even if someone gained access to the photos on the Web, he could only trace them back to White Plains, N.Y., where Simplex is located, according to Ms. Martin. The hacker, she said, wouldn't be able to find the name or the location of the center from the I See You site.

Most centers using the equipment have cameras in each classroom as well as one trained on the playground.

For parents to get onto the site, they have to type in a password. And if the codes ever fall into the wrong hands, they can easily be changed, supporters of the idea point out.

Jane Frost, whose 3-year-old son Casey attends the Children's Corner in Ridgefield, Conn., which was the first center to use the Simplex system, said she's never been concerned about the security risks.

"No more than someone walking into that door and walking out with my child," she said.

Using the program allows her to stay better connected and follow up on what Casey did during the day. "It makes me feel more comfortable that I put my child in day care every day," she said.

But some people still have trouble with the concept, no matter how many safeguards it may have. "Parents have got a right to know what's going on during the day, but how many of us would want to work under constant video surveillance?" said Lewis Maltby, the director of the Princeton, N.J.-based Workplace Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union.

But Simplex's Ms. Martin said the cameras are actually a way for a center's staff members to prove to parents how hard they work and to show them what their children are learning.

The programs are also a way to keep out-of-state grandparents and traveling parents plugged in.

"We kind of feel that this system is putting the day-care industry out front," Ms. Martin said. "If we can promote early child care, it's going to benefit everybody."

But Marcy Whitebook, a co-director of the National Center for the Early Childhood Workforce, a Washington group focusing on wages and working conditions in centers, said she's afraid that most people will view these systems as another way to catch negligent workers.

And most child-care advocates believe the money that centers are spending on such systems--which run about $350 a month--could instead be spent on higher pay for workers or better classroom materials.

Coming to K-12?

With the systems already operating in child-care centers, what's to keep administrators from using them to give busy parents with older children a glimpse into K-12 classrooms, especially now that so many schools have sophisticated World Wide Web sites?

Ms. Martin said she has already received a few phone calls from public schools, but all of them are still exploring the possible ways such a program could be used in a public school setting.

Most observers suggest that this is not the kind of technology schools need.

"We're really into providing information to our parents, but we don't do things just for technology's sake. It has to have value," said Kent Keel, the director of information technology for the Kent, Wash., school district, where all of the 36 schools have Web sites.

Even Bright Start's Ms. Tubbergen said center operators need to "go in with their eyes open."

She noted that it may be easier to open a new center with the system already installed rather than to put one in an established business, where the teachers and the parents would have to agree to it.

Another downside, she said, is that pictures can be deceiving.

For example, a parent recently called Ms. Tubbergen after checking the Web page several times and seeing someone she thought was her child in the "timeout" chair--a disciplinary measure for children who have been acting up. The mother wanted to know why her son had been there for so long. The truth was that her son had not been in timeout at all. A young visitor, who had shoes resembling her son's, was sitting in the corner observing the class.

"A picture doesn't lie," Ms. Tubbergen said, "but it also doesn't tell the whole story."

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