Receive articles directly to your email, or subscribe via an RSS reader.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Kids Go Mobile - Part 2

In Kids Go Mobile - Part 1 I discussed cell phone features that are established and well known in the mobile phone market and my thoughts about how to avoid some of the dangers associated with some of them. Today I will start to introduce some of the newer technologies that are emerging in the mobile phone market.

Location based services is a REALLY hot topic these days. There are lots of different applications, and probably the most well known is GPS based driving instructions. While such applications very often run on special devices installed in cars or on PDAs, they are also available now on mobile phones. However, since this blog is focused on technologies and how they affect kids I will focus in this post on phone based location based technologies aimed at that.

Believe it or not, you can now use a cellphone to track the location of your children. The phrase, "It's 10:00pm do you know where you child is?" is going the way of the rotary phone. Today's location tracking technologies enable you to look on the internet via a PC or your phone and see a map indicating your child's location using the GPS capabilities of his phone. You can even indicate an area on the map and if the child leaves that area you will receive a warning via SMS and/or email. This of course raises what I call the "track or trust" dilemma, but we'll get back to that in a few minutes. If you would like some links to providers offerings this type of service take a look at this blog post, which mentions the different providers and has links to their tracking enabled phones.

Before we discuss the implications of this technology on both children and parents I would like to give you a technical overview of how location tracking technologies work. I believe this will help you better understand the true capabilities and limitations.

If even thought of hearing tech talk has caused an expression like this to appear on your face feel free to scroll on down to the "phew" picture and keep reading from there. :)

OK, so here goes. How the heck do they know the location of the mobile phone? Well actually all mobile phone providers identify to which antennas your phone is closest in order to route calls to you. The location of the antennas is of course known to the provider, since they put them up. Using this information and by calculating the strength of the signal received by the closest antennas they are able to identify the location of the phone. This method is called cellular triangulation. However, the accuracy of this method is highly dependent on the distribution of the antennas. In highly populated areas there are typically far more antennas than in more rural areas, resulting in a very different level of accuracy. In the heart of a crowded city it might have an accuracy of up to 50 meters while in a a rural area the accuracy would be measured in kilometers (or miles).

For this reason the mobile providers are not relying on cellular triangulation to provide their Family Finder type services. Instead they use GPS enabled devices. The GPS (Global Positioning System) receiver in the phone calculates the phone's position by measuring its distance between 3 or more GPS satellites. It's accuracy is much higher and much more consistent than cellular triangulation and comes in at roughly 15 meters. A significant drawback of GPS however, is that it does not work without a line of site to the satellites and thus does not work inside buildings, underground, etc. The tracking systems get around this by noting the last place you were located via GPS and assuming you are still there until a new reading is received. This of course is very misleading if you are riding on a subway.

One thing which, although obvious, should probably be mentioned is that for phone tracking to work as advertised the phone needs to be turned on and it needs to be with the child. Ditching it at a friends house while going out on the town defeats the purpose. Some manufacturers have come out with phones whose GPS continues to work even when the phone is turned off. To prevent the child from removing the battery to get around that they have a special screw making it impossible to remove the battery without a special tool.

You survived the technical stuff!

Now take a look at the advertisement highlighted in this post and tell me what you think. The ad for the child tracking system basically infers that the child doesn't know anything about the tracking capability of the phone he just received from his mother, and his mother proudly shows to her coworkers her ability to track her sons movements. I think that goes way beyond even the occassional snooping we discussed in my Instant Messaging post.
There is a lot of interest in these tracking services, especially as parents fear for their children's safety from pedophiles and other such threats. However, does a parent's fears justify such a blatant intrusion into a child's privacy??? In my opinion, the answer is a resounding NO.

However, if the technology is being used with the knowledge of the child then I believe there are situations where it has its advantages. For example, it can help make sure a child doesn't get lost. It can also be used to resist temptations posed by peers. Tweens and teens sometimes need an excuse of "over protective parents" to extricate themselves from situations which they know are not allowed.

Whether this technology is for you depends on a few factors:
  1. Your level of fear and anxiety for your child's safety.
  2. How closely you like to monitor your child's daily activities.
As with all technologies, this child tracking can be used in a positive way or in a very negative way.


Anonymous said...

A most informative and realistic article on telephone technologies and parents' supervision of their children. It raises problems and solutions that were often not widely considered when my children were young. (But then again, my children were, and are, perfect.)Like all new technologies (like atomic power), they can generate awesome benefits or terible byproducts. Human behavior (children or adults) will always seek to bypass built in safeguards. But clearly, the positive attributes of this emerging technology, and the population's use of it, far outweigh the volume and character of abuses. Even this e-mail technology is a perfect example of this.
IBM is lucky to have such a wise and "out of the box" thinker like you.

Joe Mobile said...

Really great analysis of the child tracking dilemma. Since I wrote that post listing various mobile carriers in the US with tracking services, a few more have announced similar applications, including Alltel (also Bell Mobility, Aliant, and MTS Allstream in Canada). Despite privacy concerns, carriers are realizing that the market demand is definitely there.