Introducing elfOS: making The Elf on the Shelf fit for the digital age!

It’s the time of year when that surveillance sneak, The Elf on the Shelf, makes a resurgence.

If you’ve managed to avoid this pointy-eared panopticon, here’s what Wikipedia says about the eponymous book:

The elf on the shelf is also Santa’s - known as St. Nick’s - best friend. This story describes how Santa’s “scout elves” hide in people’s homes to watch over events. Once everyone goes to bed, the scout elf flies back to the North Pole to report to Santa the activities, good and bad, that have taken place throughout the day. Before the family wakes up each morning, the scout elf flies back from the North Pole and hides

I find the idea of training children to accept the presence of a secret police reporting back to a powerful central authority figure utterly horrifying. Even more so that it is dressed up as a bit of a fun, and a “Christmas tradition”.

“Christmas traditions” are watching “Home Alone” and “Die Hard”, eating too much, and wondering if giving your wife a USB charger as her present is a fast track route to a divorce. Not teaching children that they should be live under constant, semi-covert, surveillance.

But the biggest problem? How on earth can one elf monitor lots of mobile phones?! It’s a prime example of analogue thinking in a digital age.

Introducing elfOS: elf ’n’ safety for the digital age

What we need is a digital Elf on the Shelf.

An Elf on the Shelf which comes backed into your phone, or into your message apps, or both, to ensure that its beady eye is Always Watching what you are doing, and reporting back.

No need to put the elf on a shelf out of reach if it’s baked into your phone or your apps, where you can’t delete it without also stopping doing what you want to do.

As a bonus, the elf won’t need to keep nipping home to the North Pole for new instructions, which presumably cuts down on Santa’s carbon footprint. Instead, Santa can simply push new spying missions down to the device, making sure that the elf can stick its nose into whatever Santa wants, without the phone user knowing any different.

Basically, I’m proposing a digital elf, skilled in peeking at your pics and fingering your filesystem, as the new normal, for the digital age.

I wish I was joking

Apple proposed essentially this: “upgrading” the operating system on your phone to install its surveillance elf, so that it could monitor your photos, and report back if it didn’t like what it found.

Apple paused - notably, did not commit to stopping - its plans, after running into a considerable adverse reaction.

DragonflAI, one of the “winners” of the UK government’s “safety tech challenge fund” seems to be thinking along similar lines:

messaging companies will be able to install the software that will analyse images before they can be sent, without the images needing to leave the mobile phones.

(Apparently, on-device content analysis, seeming done without the user’s choice or control, is still achieved “without compromising on user privacy”. That seems like a bold claim.)

“Bugs in our Pockets: The Risks of Client-Side Scanning” - a paper by 14 security experts - concludes:

In a world where our personal information lies in bits carried on powerful communication and storage devices in our pockets, both technology and laws must be designed to protect our privacy and security, not intrude upon it. Robust protection requires technology and law to complement each other. Client-side scanning would gravely undermine this, making us all less safe and less secure.

Elf on the Shelf? No, thanks.