Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Tracking fever

An interesting Private Member’s Bill is up for second reading on Friday. The Licensing of Child Location Services Bill stands virtually no chance of getting through (and in our view would need some amendment) but it does raise the visibility of a serious issue: child-tracking.

Over the past couple of years or so, there has been an explosion in the market for gizmos that tell parents the precise location of their child at any time. At the moment, this is done chiefly via mobile phones, but there are also trackable school bags, watches, etc – and even devices that give you the low-down on where your child has been, which seem to us to be a particularly cynical exploitation of a relationship in trouble.

If ever there was a case of ‘technology looking for a market’, these location devices are it. Exploiting the fear that every parent feels for their child (and which parent doesn’t remember the stomach-churning occasion of their child’s first solo flight?) most advertise themselves as some kind of child-protection that offers parents ‘reassurance’.

A second’s thought will tell you how spurious that reassurance is, because the device only tells a parent where it is. It doesn’t say whether a child is in the same place, is safe, has been in an accident (many, many thousand times more likely than abduction by a stranger) or needs some advice – in which case simply ensuring a parent or nominated substitute is always available on the other end of a phone seems a logical solution.

If anyone merely wanted to check up on their teenage daughter, they should be warned: the immediate reaction of some of ARCH’s younger members was “Great! You could make a fortune – round up everyone’s mobiles for the evening, charge them all a quid and go sit in the church youth club.”

There are so many other reasons why this type of technology is a thoroughly bad idea. Children need privacy, independence and the confidence that they can actually manage in the big wide world, and parents have to learn to trust that their children are competent. (If a child isn’t yet reasonably capable, what in heaven’s name is he doing out on his own with a beeping piece of plastic?)

The problem is that, against all logic, parents are buying into tracking-fever and it’s unlikely that they are going to stop. Currently the devices and systems are not regulated, and new ones are pushing into the lucrative market. The whole, messy area of consent needs sorting out. The potential danger of corrupt or careless disclosure of information needs to be recognised – something that happens in any organisation regardless of CRB checks – and dealt with. The advertising standards need to be tightened up to prevent extravagant claims about the efficacy of these rather pointless products in protecting children.

As we say, the chances of a Private Member’s Bill achieving this first time around are slim, but it’s a good start.

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