Snopes debunks Elf on the Shelf as NSA spy; Professor: Elf teaches kids spying is OK

Even as Snopes debunked the claim that Elf on the Shelf is spying for the NSA, a digital technology professor claimed the elf is changing children’s expectation of privacy; it’s teaching kids that it is “cool for the NSA to watch them, to report back to the government."

Elf on Shelf as NSA spy
Credit: Kim

That little Elf on the Shelf toy sure gets around. Not only do “scout elves” hide in people's homes, always listening, and watch kids in order to report back to Santa if children are naughty or nice, but one little Elf has even been “deputized” by a sheriff in Abilene, Texas. The Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition started in 2005 as a children's picture book, but now Snopes had to debunk a claim that the elves are packed with sensors and serving as spies for the NSA. Yet a digital technology professor says the elf is not cool; it’s teaching kids to be conditioned that NSA surveillance is fine and that they are not entitled to privacy.

Wow, you know those forwarded emails that are passed around without people bothering to check if whatever claim is even true?  After someone did try to determine the validity of a recent email, Snopes had to tackle the claim that Elf on the Shelf toys were actually spying for the NSA.

Elf on Shelf peapodsquadmom

The email was based on the Dec. 15 The Duffel Blog post; it claimed that Edward Snowden said via Google Hangout, “The hugely popular ‘Elf on a Shelf’ trend is actually an intelligence gathering operation originating with and run by the National Security Agency.”

Besides elfie helping the NSA to have “an agent inside practically every home with a child in it,” it help the spooks “flag kids for later recruitment to the intelligence community.” Since the NSA elf accumulates “petabytes of evidence against pretty much everybody,” it works as “blackmail” to get “privacy advocates” to settle down and move on.

Scary elf spy Jeff

The Duffel Blog has the following legal disclaimer, “Everything on this website is satirical and the content of this site is a parody of a news organization. No composition should be regarded as truthful.” So it’s no surprise that Snopes determined, Eeenk! The Elf on the Shelf NSA spy claim was false.

Yet Snopes added, “Although the Elf on the Shelf is not working for the NSA, at least one professor believes that the toy is conditioning children into obeying Big Brother. University of Ontario Institute of Technology professor Laura Pinto published a paper claiming that the Elf on the Shelf teaches children they are not entitled to privacy.”

That paper, “Who’s the Boss,” was published on the Canadian Center for Policy Alternatives. In it, Pinto and Selena Nemorin argue:

What is troubling is what The Elf on the Shelf represents and normalizes: anecdotal evidence reveals that children perform an identity that is not only for caretakers, but for an external authority (The Elf on the Shelf), similar to the dynamic between citizen and authority in the context of the surveillance state. Further to this, The Elf on the Shelf website offers teacher resources, integrating into both home and school not only the brand but also tacit acceptance of being monitored and always being on one’s best behavior--without question. 

Furthermore, they said the popular toy “represents something disturbing and raises an important question. When parents and teachers bring The Elf on the Shelf into homes and classrooms, are they preparing a generation of children to accept, not question, increasingly intrusive (albeit whimsically packaged) modes of surveillance?”

"If you grow up thinking it's cool for the elves to watch me and report back to Santa, well, then it's cool for the NSA to watch me and report back to the government," Pinto told the Toronto Star. "You're teaching (kids) a bigger lesson, which is that it's OK for other people to spy on you and you're not entitled to privacy."

Conversely, the Elf on the Shelf's Jewish counterpart, The Mensch on a Bench, is "benign," according to Pinto. “Unlike the elf, the mensch doesn't report to anyone at night but stays put, watching over the Hanukkah menorah.”

Then Pinto told the Washington Post, “I don’t think the elf is a conspiracy and I realize we’re talking about a toy. It sounds humorous, but we argue that if a kid is OK with this bureaucratic elf spying on them in their home, it normalizes the idea of surveillance and in the future restrictions on our privacy might be more easily accepted.”

It is true that as we lower our reasonable expectation of privacy, that it changes the societal expectations. But the Christmas song Santa Claus is Coming to Town has been around since 1934, proclaiming that Santa “sees you when you're sleeping; He knows when you're awake. He knows if you've been bad or good…”

Santa’s spying didn’t teach generations of children that government surveillance is peachy keen, but maybe it’s different with a creepy elf? Once upon a time, the NSA was paranoid about creepy Furby spies. The NSA banned Furby toys because “it was feared that Furbies would overhear top secret information, which would then be shared with other the toys began to talk.” In turn, Tiger Electronics president Roger Shiffman issued a denial. "The NSA did not do their homework. Furby is not a spy!"

It's doubtful the elf is spying for anyone other than Santa, but it's up to you to decide what you believe.

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