Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Big Brother can track you anywhere by your cellphone

TECHNOLOGY
From the Los Angeles Times


Parents Tracking Kids Via Cellphone

June 30, 2006
By STEVEN BARRIE-ANTHONY, Los Angeles Times Fifteen-year-old Jordan Murphy loves to play hoops, so after school he and his brother Joshua, 13, jump on bikes and troll their neighborhood in Shawnee, Kan., for pickup games.

Often, they pedal through a hectic blind intersection to reach courts at the civic center, toss their bags on the ground and start dribbling. They don't hear their cellphone ringing, don't allay the fears of their single mother, who's telling herself that all's fine, probably, but if only they would just answer the phone.

Then, in April, mom Jacqui Fahrnow bought Jordan and Joshua a cellphone from Sprint Nextel that doubles as a tracking beacon. Now if the kids haven't arrived at the court by 3:15 p.m., Fahrnow's phone jingles and up pops a color map of their location, complete with street addresses. If they're at or near the courts or at Aunt Valerie's house or the grocery store, Fahrnow doesn't worry; if they're far afield, she knows where to find them. That peace of mind costs her $9.99 a month.

"It's like having another set of eyes," says Fahrnow, who owns an office-management business. "This will be even more useful when they get older and start driving. With four wheels under you, a lot of things can happen."

Sprint Family Locator, which debuted in April, is just one of many newly released cellular services that use global positioning satellites to allow family members to keep tabs on each other via their phones. Disney Mobile, which opened for business 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.

Similar 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 they can recoup their investment by offering that same capability to subscribers. Carriers make big bucks; parents rest easier.

Everybody wins except the people being tracked, say teens and privacy advocates, who peg this trend to an unhealthy desire for control. "What do we get out of this?" says Hunter Ligon, 16, of Oklahoma City, who has discussed the technology with his mom but is as yet untracked. "We go to school every day; we work our butts off; and there are such strict limitations on our life already. We need to expand our boundaries, to become more independent, and yet now we have one more thing to pull us down."

Communication technology has become synonymous with youth, says Ligon, who carries a T-Mobile Sidekick II so that he can communicate with his friends. Kids these days rarely galavant around the neighborhood until dinnertime, as their parents did; scary stories on the evening news have driven them indoors; and community has in large part gone virtual - making it especially galling that technology is becoming an informer.

"Most parents can barely turn on a computer," Ligon said. "They're always asking us for help."

As is the case with Kansas mom Leila Pellant, who couldn't figure out how to set up Sprint Family Locator - and asked her son Spencer, 14, to activate it for her. Spencer obliged, and now the service "keeps Spencer on point all the time, knowing that I can find out where he is," says Pellant, a real estate agent. "As far as privacy goes, my children don't deserve total privacy."

Katt Hemman, 17, of Hutchinson, Kan., rejects the argument that it's OK to track kids because it'll keep a few from being kidnapped or making mischief. It's the same argument that the Bush administration makes in defending warrantless wiretapping, she says. A marginal increase in safety isn't worth forfeiting civil rights, she says, and adults who balk at being spied on and then turn around and spy themselves are hypocrites.

Her generation is always looking over its shoulder, says Katt, whose parents haven't (yet) signed up for cell tracking but do monitor her Internet activity. "I don't trust as many people as I want to," she said. "I have moments where I don't trust my own family because I feel as if they're reading everything I write on the Internet."

Of course, kids will fight back. One teen guesses that encasing his phone in aluminum foil might divert the signal; another, especially crafty teen reveals his plan should his parents begin surveillance: 1) Tell parents he's going to a friend's house. 2) Go to friend's house. 3) Tie his cellphone to their dog, so it moves around. 4) Leave to live unobserved.

Of course, if people continue using technology for ever greater self-revelation, the debate over surveillance may be rendered moot. Soon MySpace.com will be accessible on cellphones, and experts say mobile social networking, instant-messaging and the rest are poised to merge with tracking technology to provide not just virtual access to all friends at all times, but physical access as well.

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