Are ‘kid trackers’ a parenting boon or privacy threat?

(12/12/05) – Whether they’re concerned about the risk of abduction or
simply trying to keep tabs on their young ones, parents now have some
high-tech options to track their kids. “When you look around your house
and you can’t find your child, you go to the mall, you go to a park and
your kid’s missing and you get that gut-wrenching feeling for 30 seconds
or five minutes, ‘I can’t find my child,’” said Bob Frank, the chief
executive officer of Bluespan, which makes a child tracker called
“ionKids.”

“That panic of the parent who thinks they’ve lost their child, that’s
what got us going.”

Their gadget uses a “base unit” and a high-tech wristband or keychain to
sound an alert when a child wanders too far. Other products use other
technology — even satellite GPS tracking — to perform a similar
function.

Some say it’s a great way to give parents peace of mind. But others
contend that at best, many of these systems offer a false sense of
security, and at worst they represent a troubling new form of
surveillance.

Home Plate to Center Field

ionKids consists of a base unit for the parent and a child unit that
comes in the form of either a tamper-resistant wristband or a
keychain-like “tag.”

A small LCD screen on the base unit shows the relative distance of the
child from the parent. As many as four children can be monitored with one
base unit.

“Right now it goes up to about 350 to 400 feet outdoors,” said Frank,
“which is home plate to center field at any ballpark across the country,
and you probably don’t want your kid that far away when you’re at the
zoo.”

Though Frank says that Bluespan is working on extending the range up to
more than half a mile outdoors, it’s limited to 200 feet indoors. Within
that range, it’s up to the parent to decide how big to make the perimeter.

When children stray too far, both their units and their parents’ devices
buzz and light up. At that point the parent can use the device to “sweep”
like a metal detector. The screen on the device looks like radar, beaming
out to locate the child.

Education, Not Gadgets, Says One Expert

“I think parents need to take a step back and understand that the bottom
line for the safety and security of their family is a consistent
education program with their children,” said David Shapiro, special
assistant to the president of the National Center for Missing and
Exploited children.

Shapiro says that although the choice to use a high-tech kid tracker is a
personal one, parents should not assume it’s a cure-all against abduction.

“I can think of one case — I think it was in the Midwest — where a
child was wearing one of these alarm bracelets and was approached by an
abductor,” he said. “She activated the alarm, and the abductor simply
ripped it off, threw it on the ground and stomped on it.”

But it’s the issue of privacy that concerns Lee Tien, senior staff
attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties
advocacy group.

“I don’t like the idea of these sorts of tracking services and have no
particular love of surveillance becoming institutionalized for use by
parents on their kids,” said Tien.

Easing the Struggle with Autism

One area where this technology is making an impact is in the autistic
community.

Peter Bell, a father of an autistic child and also the CEO of Cure Autism
Now, understands the controversy, but wishes he’d had one of the devices
when he took his 12-year-old autistic son to Disneyland last spring.

“My son was literally standing right next to me and I stopped to get a
consensus on where we should go next,” he said. “The next thing I know, I
look to my side and he’s gone.”

Park employees were able to locate his child, but Bell says a high-tech
tracker could have saved him several minutes of intense worry.

“I know there are some groups out there — basically civil liberties
groups — that don’t like the idea of being able to know where people are
at any given time,” he said. “But I’m speaking as a parent of a child
with autism and one that kind of likes to wander.”

Cynthia Johnson, director of the Autism Center at the Children’s Hospital
of Pittsburgh, also likes the idea.

“It’s not for all kids with autism obviously,” Johnson said. “But there
are plenty of kids with autism that don’t have the ability to communicate
and are at great risk for not being able to tell somebody who they are,
where they came from and they are at higher risk for wandering off
impulsively.”

You can learn more about protecting your children from abduction by
visiting the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Copyright ©2005 ABC Inc., KTRK-TV Houston

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