Circle With Disney Locks Down Kids’ Devices From Afar
In 2013, Jelani Memory joined the ranks of Kickstarter hopefuls with Circle, a device to help families manage screen time. It didn’t work out. As it turns out, that might have been the best possible outcome.
“Kickstarter was what I like to call a really great failure,” says Circle Media founder Jelani Memory. A failure in that it Circle didn’t raise anywhere near its goal funds; really great in that just two years later Memory’s company not only has a product to sell, but a partnership with Disney to bolster it.
Circle with Disney, on sale beginning today for $99, looks a lot like that earlier effort. It’s a small cube that pairs with a local Wi-Fi network to give parents control over what kind of content their kids’ devices can access, and for how long. If Karen’s watching too much YouTube, for instance, you can limit her iPhone to an hour (or more, or less) of videos. You can “pause” Wi-Fi throughout the house for an extended period, and monitor time spent not just online but on which apps and content types.
There have also been plenty of improvements over the last two years, says Memory. The app has been overhauled, as has how the services categorizes content. Even more important, though, is the Disney partnership, which gives Circle not just added visibility and a stash of age-appropriate videos, music, and more (an included app called MyCircle will deliver “a curated selection of Disney content”) but access to the family-focused technical minds at Disney Consumer Products and Disney Interactive. “They’ve been a great partner in terms of helping us think about the product,” says Memory, “but also honing the brand and leveraging their brand for all the goodness and trust that it brings.”
A New Tool for Parents
Trust might seem like an odd word to associate with a product that sounds so distinctly Big Brother, it is. But maybe it’s better to think of Circle with Disney as Big Parent, a tool to have at least some input into which sections of the woolly, wild Internet tweens might navigate. Controlling your child’s content in the home used to be as simple as grabbing the remote. Now it requires a bit more technological trickery.
About that trickery; Circle with Disney also takes an unconventional route to what might sound like a familiar destination. A router called Skydog served a similar function until it was killed off in a Comcast acquisition, and Amazon’s FreeTime lets parents set profile-based restrictions on devices.
Circle with Disney, though, allows for more granular remote control than FreeTime. As for routers, they’re simply not worth the trouble. “One of the decisions we made really early on was not to be the router,” says Memory. “People treat their routers like they treat their water heaters; they don’t want to touch it unless it’s broken, and if it’s broken, they’re really frustrated.”
Instead, Circle with Disney takes an entirely different hardware approach, one that’s simple to set up and to manage from an app. How it does so is fascinating as well, and at first blush potentially unsettling to security wonks. “We leverage a tactical thing called ARP spoofing,” Memory explains, a technique by which Circle with Disney intercepts and inspects network packets sent from connected devices, and has the ability to grant or deny permission. That’s what allows for such fine-tuned control.
Watch The Kids For a Sec?
Memory acknowledges that the process is more typically used by black-hat hackers conducting man-in-the-middle attacks than by family-friendly hardware. He also, though, insists that it’s secure. “All your family’s data isn’t sitting up in the cloud somewhere on our servers. Any time the app is attempting to access that data… all that data and database for the filtering is end-to-end encrypted. We’re not selling that data, we’re not mining that data.” There are other benefits to this approach as well; traffic still streams directly from your wireless router, meaning it shouldn’t slow down your connection at all. And it won’t interfere with smart home devices like Nest.
This is also where the Disney imprimatur might help. Trust a Kickstarter with your data? Not likely. Trust Disney? Well… OK, maybe still not entirely, but at least it’s a known quantity.
For now, Circle with Disney is limited to activity in the home, but a subscription service called Circle with Disney Go will extend that to iOS devices outside the home—even those on 4G LTE—sometime next year.
One could argue that Circle with Disney creates a nanny state, sure. Then again, there’s a reason good nannies are in such high demand.