Tracking mobile devices

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Tracking mobile devices

A new service, ChildLocate ( is available to allow parents in the UK to track children through their mobile phones. The children – or at least the handset– can be located within 30 meters, and tracked via the internet, or via text messages to another mobile handset. The accuracy will be better in the U.S, if ChildLocate makes it here, because of upgrades to the mobile system to enhance accuracy for 911 calls.

Obviously, if we can locate a child’s handset, we can do the same for an adult, giving the service a wider potential appeal.

However, there are two issues that need to be considered.

1. Does knowing where a person’s handset is located mean you know they are safe?

2. If you can find out where they are, can someone else find out to?

This second issue has been of some concern within the U.K (, and is worth considering when thinking about the protection of high-risk adults, especially since location technology used by law enforcement is making its way to the private sector.

We take society’s obligation to protect children very seriously (see our discussion of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children in the April 2004 issue of ÆGIS). The question is whether this measure is worth the minor cost? To answer this question we come back to the five questions we need to ask of any policy of measure:

1. What problem is the policy or measure trying to solve?

2. How can it fail in practice?

3. Given the failure modes, how well does it solve the problem?

4. What are the costs, both financial and social, associated with it, and flowing from its unintended consequences?

5. Given the effectiveness and costs, is the policy or measure worth it?

Although over 300,000 children go missing each year, virtually all of these are either taken in a custody battle, or run away because they have been physically, emotionally, or sexually abused. We are not sure that this system will help when a child, knowing they have the tracking device, willingly goes with the other parent, or with a grandparent. And we are not sure the custodial abductor will not know about the system. We are also not sure that we want a sexually abused child to be returned to their abusers, rather than, say, social services. And certainly children too young to have a mobile phone will not be helped, nor will it help those children where the abductor throws away the handset.

In terms of the small number of other abductions – the frightening and tragic abductions that make the papers and terrify parents – where there is a high probability of the child ending up dead, the odds of this happening are so miniscule that almost anything else done with the money would be a better investment. As an example, 36,000 people die in this country every year from the flu. Having your family vaccinated each year will do more to assure the survival of your child than a tracking system.

For those where a child – or an adult – is at high risk, however, there may be justification for considering technological approaches, one of which we hope to discuss in the next ÆGIS.

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