June 21, 2006

Privacy, Children and Chattels [11:50 am]

In some ways, the title says it all: Cellphones: Just a leash for children? - pdf

Sprint Family Locator, which debuted in April, is just one of many newly released cellular services that use global positioning satellites — originally developed for military use — to allow family members to keep tabs on each other via their phones. Disney Mobile, which opened for business earlier this month, includes child tracking among its basic features. Verizon Wireless’ Chaperone service lets parents enclose up to 10 areas in virtual fencing, and to receive a text message if their children breach a boundary.

This technology isn’t cutting-edge, exactly; similar location based services have been marketed with limited success over the last few years, notably Nextel’s Mobile Locator designed for companies to track employees. But cellular carriers are in a tizzy to fulfill a Federal Communications Commission mandate that 911 operators be able to pin down phone locations — and it stands to reason that they recoup their investment by offering that same capability to subscribers. Carriers make beaucoup bucks, parents like Fahrnow rest easier; everybody wins.

Everybody except the people being tracked, say teens and privacy advocates who peg this trend to an unhealthy desire for control. [...]

[...] Alan Phillips is an ardent proponent of this revolution. In 2002 he caught his 14-year-old son skateboarding when he was supposed to be at a friend’s house, and Phillips promptly founded uLocate Communications, in Massachusetts, to develop location-based services for mobile phones. These days the Phillips family can check each others’ locations via a cellphone click (or on the Web) and can even view the rate of speed at which family members are traveling.

“My son plays soccer,” Phillips says. “We set up ‘geofences’ so that when he’s coming back from games on the bus, every time his phone comes within five miles of the school, we are alerted. So that we know when to pick him up.”

Very convenient; but even Phillips admits that sometimes the ever-present eye is a little much. “I have intentionally turned off my phone to suppress data from my wife,” he says. “If I’m leaving late and had told her that I’d meet her somewhere….”

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