Do You Know Where Your Children Are? Your Phone Does. Geo-Tracking Heats Up.
Call it LoJack for your loved ones. Multiple smart phone developers have hit upon the same idea: use the GPS in phones to allow worried parents to track their kids. ATT, Verizon, and Sprint all have their versions of this service, and there are dedicated iPhone Apps like Whereoscope and LogSat's Family Tracker that do the same. You can get notices when your child enters areas you define like school, work, or the mall -all without them having to do anything. No check-ins needed, updates occur automatically, letting you surreptitiously know where your kids are every second. And should they turn the service off on their phones, you'll get notified so you can call and harass them for doing so. Oh, and if that wasn't enough control, you can do the exact same for your significant other. Is she really working late at the office? Did he really go to the movies? Whether you view this technology as added security or added invasion of privacy, it's already here and it's getting more powerful.
There are two major forces converging in this technological meme. The first is the growing sophistication of GPS tracking in phones. We've already seen how geo-tagging photos and check-in services (like FourSquare) are changing maps and social networks. That same trend is now mixing with a more serious concern: missing kids. Obviously that's a very serious and terrifying worry for many parents. According to the National Criminal Justice Reference Service about 1.7 million US youths were either abandoned, kidnapped, or otherwise 'went missing' in 1999 (latest year a large scale study was conducted). Some companies are clearly focusing on this kidnapping concern with the way they market their services. Case in point, Kids Locator:
Now, not every company is billing their family tracking service as protecting against kidnapping, but the subtext is clearly there. Most of the time the services are sold as a sort of convenience. Did Johnny get to practice on time? Is Sonya home yet? Did Kano really go to the mall? Here's a typical commercial, this one for ATT's Family Map:
While these services have been around for a few years, they've characteristically had some shortcomings. Early locater programs used cell towers to pinpoint location, which wasn't very accurate. Many programs had the phone continuously locate itself, which rapidly drained the battery. In smart phones, many programs could not run in the background, meaning that the locater program could only work when the carrier (your child) opened the App. Almost all of these limitations have now been overcome. Newer phones have GPS capabilities that directly pinpoint their location. New family tracking programs only update their location during transitions (say when a phone goes from one cell tower to another) which drastically saves power. And new smart phones (like the iPhone 3Gs, iPhone 4G, many Android phones, etc) can run programs in the background.
So how, exactly, does it work? Well there are too many different programs to generalize, but here's what I think is the winning formula: You sign up for a family tracking service with your carrier or you download an App on your phone. You then do the same for every phone you want to track. The service provides you with a unique code that identifies your phone. Every other phone you want to track has to provide you with their code - thus preventing outsiders from tracking you or your kids without permission. All of the plans require mutual consent to enable and can be dropped at any time. Once enabled, you determine what notices you wish to receive. You can define geographic areas with 'geo-fences' so that you know when your child or spouse enters or leaves a location (like school, work, etc). Each phone tracks itself as it moves from place to place and updates the other phones tracking it. Parents receive a list of places their children have been (with times for each) as well as a real-time location of where their child is now. Nearly continuous monitoring, and it's all done passively. Many companies are already following this outline, and if they aren't yet, they soon will.
Family tracking can cost you. The Kids Locator service runs up to €2 a month depending on country (it's EU based). ATT Family Map is $10 per month for 2 phones or $15 for 5 phones. Sprint's Family Locator is $5 per month for up to 4 phones. Verizon's Family Locator is $10 per month per line. The iPhone Apps are considerably cheaper. LogSat's Family Tracker is $4 per download (one time fee). Childpulse is free and will soon be updating to Whereoscope (which will have better features).
Each of these services have their own selling points and limitations. Some have more geo-fences and locations you can establish. Some have different notification styles. Some have a web interface you can use in place of your phone. The Apps generally only work on newer smart phones. Childpulse for instance, requires the iPhone OS 4, and is better with iPhone 3Gs or iPhone 4G. If you're really interested in using these services, make sure to shop around and compare. There are even more groups than I have listed here, and you're bound to find a deal that suits your needs with one of them.
Where is all this geo-tracking headed? To some crazy places, let me tell you. It's becoming pretty common to have your friends know where you are through social networks with geo-tagging capabilities. Facebook, Twitter, FourSquare - these make your location public knowledge (more or less), but they also require your conscious effort to enable them at each new place you go to. Family tracking services do the same thing, only automatically, and that's a game changer. You'll default to letting someone know where you are rather than actively deciding when to check in. People in your 'family' will now expect to know where you are at all times, and become concerned when they can't find you. While that mentality may not be new, the technology is. Instead of worrying about where you are, your loved ones can just look at their phone and know.
In terms of parents and kids this is probably a net positive. But for spouses? Let's look at BindTwo, the significant other version of ChildPulse and Whereoscope (same developer). BindTwo amounts to a sort of mate spying system. It can be used for good...or for evil. Jealous of your boyfriend? Now you can track him and call him if he goes somewhere you don't like. I love the quote on their site that I think sums up the situation nicely: "BindTwo isn't a creepy stalker app, it's just a simple way to find your partner." Oh, sure, totally.
But it gets even more aggressive. LogSat, makers of the Family Tracker App, is the same company that offers sex-offender maps and notifications for your iPhone. Now you can track your loved ones with the same scrutiny you apply to pedophiles! The LogSat Family Tracker has an option that I think many other services are likely to pick up: pinging phones. Say your family member doesn't have a smart phone with GPS, you can simply ping them with a text-message-like communication and when they open the text you'll be told where they are. The same pinging technique can work on those family members who turn off the tracking service. Again, an amazing quote that illuminates the situation: "These notifications will be automatically re-sent every 60 seconds until they are acknowledged. If the recipient is trying to ignore them or does not hear them, this repetition will help acknowledging them." This is the mobile phone version of standing outside someone's house and yelling "I WON'T LET YOU IGNORE ME!"
Can you imagine this technology once maps have real-time photo and video updates? Not only would you be able to track your loved ones, but if they're in a public place chances are you'd be able to see what they were up to. Heck, combine these services with tele-robotics and parents could have the potential of showing up where their children are at any time. The effects this technology could eventually have are pretty astounding.
Look, I'm not a privacy nut, far from it. I sort of think that our current notions of privacy are going to drastically change in the years ahead. Still, this (consensual) peer on peer surveillance is a little creepy.
That being said, I would totally use it. There's a lot of convenience built into these services even if they could be abused by over-bearing parents or spouses. It may sound silly but it really would help to know where people in the family are without having to text and call all the time. Did my wife or I go to the store? The other can call quickly and ask to pick something up for them. Am I meeting her at a party I don't know how to get to? Not a problem, I just go to her location. Is she worried about the amount of time I've been spending at the vintage video arcade playing Mortal Kombat? Now she can call me whenever I'm within a mile of that location and tell me not to...wait. Maybe we should think about this some more.