Wednesday, April 19, 2006 - The Progress & Freedom Foundation Blog

A Paranoid Parent Ponders GPS Tracking His Kids

Well it didn't take long for a young, rebellious punk to turn into a paranoid, condescending parent. I'm already talking to my kids in ways that used to make me resent my own parents. And I'm already beginning to think about how to watch over their every move like a hawk to make sure that they stay out of trouble.

The difference between raising a kid today versus the past, however, is that technology--much to the dismay of independent-minded children--makes this task even easier for parents. In my recent paper discussing how"Parents Have Many Tools to Combat Objectionable Media Content," I mentioned how new cell phones targeted to kids come embedded not only with a variety of parental controls, but also GPS / geo-location technology. This enables parents to monitor the movements of their children wherever they may go.

Even though my kids are still too young to have their own cell phones, I've already begun thinking about how I might use such tracking technologies in the future. Even though both of my kids are under five years of age, I sometimes sit around thinking about what they are doing or exactly where they are at. This is despite the fact that I know exactly where my kids are: My daughter is always at her pre-school and my son is always at home with our nanny. Yet, I'm still paranoid, and sometimes find myself wondering if they are exactly where they should be. Could they have wondered off? Are the teachers or my nanny taking the kids places I don't know about? Has someone snatched them?!?

I know this is all quite pathetic in one sense, but that's the sort of paranoid thinking that sometimes goes on in the heads of parents. And in my most paranoid moments, I sometimes think how cool it would be if I could just convert the wi-fi radar on my laptop (which searches for nearby hotspots and maps them on a big radar screen on my computer) into a kid-tracker instead. It could track their cell phones, or their GPS-enable watches or lunchboxes. Or perhaps even the RFID chip I could plant under their skin!

Again, this is the sort of stuff that what have driven me into to hyper-rebellion as a kid, especially as a teenager. The thought of my parents tracking my every move would have driven me nuts, and I my computer-nerd brother and I probably would have worked hard to defeat or trick any geo-location technologies that our parents might have tired to use with us. (My brother would have probably reprogrammed them to trace our cats instead of us.)

Is there a happy balance here? I think so.

I think that before a certain age--I'm not sure what it is... 6? 10? 12?--it makes a great deal of sense for parents to use such technologies to monitor their kids. After all, what's wrong with knowing where your pre-teen child is at all times? They have not yet reached an age where they are equipped to care for themselves or exercise responsible judgment independent of their parents.

And, yes, child abduction is a concern here too. Any of you who have lost sight of your children for even a few moments--like my wife and I did at a baseball game with our daughter two years ago--understand all too well that truly sickening feeling that hits your stomach when you realize you don't know where your kids are. All sorts of awful thoughts run through your mind in a matter of seconds. You want to get on every PA system on the planet and tell the world to stop and help you look for them RIGHT NOW before anything bad happens. Well, wouldn't it be nice if we could instead just flip our cell phones open and have a homing beacon lead us right to them?

But as the kids grow up and can be trusted to be away from our sides for longer periods, the desire to still be monitoring their whereabouts will remain quite strong. Should parents "let go" in a technological sense and stop tracing their movements when the kids are, say, 13 years old? How about 16? I hate to say it, but I'm sure that when my daughter reaches that age, I'll want to have every satellite in space zooming in on her to make sure some teenage boy on a hormone high isn't trying to do... well.. what I was trying to do when I was young teenage boy on a hormone high!

It is my hope that when my kids reach that age, I'll be able to let go a little bit and grant them a degree of privacy at least roughly equal to what I had at their age. That doesn't mean I want them running wild in the streets and going wherever they please without permission, but I do hope to grant them a fair degree of freedom to live and learn and play on their own, without their cell phones pinging every time I see them wondering off somewhere.

Interestingly, the early GPS tracking technologies being offered in cell phones today already have some limitations built in. The Washington Post's outstanding technology columnist Rob Pegoraro posted an article today with the humorous title: "Watch Out, Kids: With GPS Phones, Big Mother Is Watching." In the piece, he discusses Sprint's new GPS-enabled cell phone for kids and he points out that, "The objects of this surveillance [kids] might not be so gung-ho about carrying around cellphones that double as homing beacons. Sprint says it has tried to build in measures to stop parents from being too aggressive in their snooping: Kids must authorize tracking by entering a password on their own phones, and the phone will also buzz or beep every time its location is checked. So at least the trackees can know exactly how they are being followed and can react accordingly--say, by abandoning the phone on a church pew before running off to the mall."

So, it will likely be the case that even if my wife and I want use technology to trace our kids like hawks, in reality, we'll be as blind as bats. Of course, perhaps if we just implant enough RFID tags under their skin, they'll never be able to evade our omnipresent eyes!

There I go again.

posted by Adam Thierer @ 9:25 AM | Generic Rant , Mass Media , Privacy