Sunday, July 11, 2010

Big Mother Is Watching You On Your Cell Phone

George Orwell made the phrase “Big Brother” famous in his dystopia 1984 when he epitomized the intrusive, spies-everywhere nature of the omnipresent state of the future with the slogan, “Big Brother is watching you.” While pieces of his futuristic novel (published in 1949) have come true over the years—he anticipated television pretty well, for example—even Orwell did not imagine that some day, for a measly five dollars a month, parents could get continuous accurate information on the whereabouts of their children. Hence “Big Mother.”

This is no science-fiction dream. Last month a flyer came in my cell phone bill. Normally I just throw them away, having no use for most of the features of my cell phone anyway, but this one’s headline caught my attention: “See your kids on a satellite map!”

A system that only a few months ago I heard described as “coming soon” by a telecommunications researcher has been rolled out by Sprint, and no doubt many other companies as well. The fact that it has been available for several years shows that researchers and professors can be out of touch about some things too. The technology is fairly simple. You give your children cell phones with a GPS feature, which nowadays is not that complex—if there aren’t single-chip GPS receivers available already, there will be soon. The phone company, upon receipt of your five dollars a month (plus taxes, fees, and surcharges), queries the GPS receiver periodically, takes the coordinates, plots them on a map, and makes it available to the parents.

I suppose this “family locator” (as it is billed) is too new to have inspired much in the way of reactions from the teenage set. Apparently, the feature has been available in some markets since 2006, but in a cursory glance at a web search I turned up only corporate press releases and reviews, generally favorable, by the press. One report makes it clear that the teenager has to consent to the tracking, and even gets a text message letting him or her know that “Big Mother” (my use of the phrase was not original) is watching.

Originally introduced at a cost of $10 monthly, the fact that Sprint is now putting flyers into their bills and advertising it for only $5 a month tells me that the feature may not have created as much demand as the company had hoped. There are at least two big obstacles to its use: the opt-in feature that lets the kid know what’s going on, and the fact that the offspring can always leave their phone at home or at a friend’s house if they want to go somewhere their parents really don’t approve of. And as every network engineer knows, anything that leads people to disassociate themselves from their phones lowers the value of the network, not only to those directly involved, but to everyone else as well. So in that regard, Sprint could be shooting themselves in the foot with this technology, at least among the under-20 set.

Of course, governments have used cell phones for years to track down criminals without their knowledge or consent, and it worked for a while until the bad guys figured out what was going on. But bringing what started out as high-tech Mission-Impossible-style spy technology down to the level of a commercial $5-a-month option for family use is a new twist on the way technical innovations often start out expensively at the government level and percolate down to the consumer, often in a different form.

What some parents would really like, I suspect, is the stealth version of the family locator, but for fear of virtual stalking, Sprint won’t sell it that way. Of course, there may be some enterprising hackers out there who could modify the software somehow, but that gets into what you might call “grayware” and I wouldn’t recommend it.

What effect would this technology have on a teenager who grows up with it? You could view it as just one more accessory to further enable the “helicopter parent” syndrome that supposedly plagues many families today. Moms with nothing better to do can live out their teenage daughter’s lives vicariously by tracking them from house to mall to wherever. “What were you doing on Lover’s Lane from midnight to 2 A. M.?” I wonder, does the family locator have a history function, or do you have to stay up and watch it in real time? Some things are better left unspeculated about.

Well, judging by Sprint’s efforts to promote this thing, it doesn’t appear to be taking America by storm. But if this and similar location-tracking technology become generally accepted, I can see how it could change the work environment for lots of people, from public-safety employees to delivery personnel to anyone who spends time outside the direct physical supervision of their bosses. A company could easily make carrying a tracking-enabled cell phone a condition of employment, much as long-distance trucking companies keep track of their drivers through GPS already. I’m sure this would change the nature of the work environment, but how is another question altogether.

Should personal tracking be regulated? That depends on what people use it for. Clearly it could be abused, which is why commercial versions all notify the trackee of the system’s operation. But even with notification, it seems to me that one more small piece of freedom disappears when a teenager, or anyone else, agrees to be tracked by someone in authority over them. Yes, it’s the business of the authority to supervise, and knowing where someone is can be an important aspect of supervision. But there will be all sorts of subtle changes, and not all of them good, if a person knows, even subconsciously, that some other person knows exactly where they are at all times—or even just has the capability to know. Will it make a difference in the larger scheme of things? As with so many questions I raise in this blog, we will just have to wait and see.

Sources: An article reviewing one of the first offerings of the Sprint family locator was carried by the website of a New York City TV station in 2006 at

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