If you are a parent it is hard not to stress about what might be happening to your kids when they are out of sight. With missing children featured regularly and prominently in the media, every time a youngster steps unaccompanied out onto the street, it can drive a mom or dad to despair. Thankfully, the digital age has delivered a handy solution to the dilemma of how to grant kids a degree of autonomy while keeping them safe. Now it is relatively cheap and easy to turn a mobile phone into a personal tracking device, using opt-in services.
Companies such as Life360, Securafone, and SMS Tracker offer free applications (‘apps') that can be downloaded onto common smart phone platforms such as Android or iPhone and allow concerned parents to track their whereabouts.
With kids now toting phones at an increasingly tender age, and rarely letting go of them thereafter, it is a seemingly perfect way for parents to check where their kids are at all times.
No wonder, then, that the market for ‘family locator services', as it is known in the trade, is booming.
Recent research by Berg Insight, a Swedish telecommunications analysis firm, indicates the market will see a compound annual growth rate of 34 percent in the next four years, taking the number of North American and European users from 16 million in 2011 to 70 million in 2016.
"Many parents are now discovering free and low-cost apps that can turn a smart phone into a location device that enables monitoring of family members such as children," says the firm. Berg Insight notes this trend is in parallel to other personal locator services.
In organizations where employees may be at risk, for example, those employing social workers, mobile devices with tracking services (and potentially push-button alarms) are increasingly being handed out to safeguard staff from harm.
Additionally, people who are elderly or infirm can benefit from having a personal locator service so they can be tracked by relatives or care providers. In these situations the person being tracked rarely questions the value of the service.
The same cannot always be said of family locator services, however, particularly when there are children concerned, and they are old enough to expect a certain amount of privacy and independence.
"All parties should understand what is possible, and the drawbacks and benefits," observes André Malm, senior analyst at Berg Insight. Otherwise, he says, tech-savvy teenagers will not have much of a problem quitting or uninstalling the app. It is also important for parents to know the limitations of personal locator services, which in turn depends on the type of technology used.
Cell ID services, which are available worldwide, can only pin handsets down to a radius of around 200 meters in urban areas and perhaps not even a kilometer in rural locations.
In the United States, the approximately 50 percent of mobile users who are on Code Division Multiple Access networks can benefit from GPS(Global Positioning System)tracking. This is more accurate than cell ID, but does not work well within some buildings, so is not of much use if your kid is inside a shopping mall.
With smart phones, the accuracy of the services has been creeping up, but because apps are handset rather than network based they may be more susceptible to failure. "People should not rely overly on these services and expect them always to function," says Malm.
Once the limitations are taken into account, it is up to each family to decide whether to trust their children on the streets with a personal locator. And here it turns out there is a marked difference between the United States and other western countries.
Based on his conversations with app developers and device manufacturers, Malm says: "In the United States, privacy does not seem to be so much of an issue and the fact that parents can track children and control their habits seems to be OK.
"You can have deep control of texts and voice calls and it is considered alright to do that without the consent of the child."
In Europe, on the other hand: "That level of control is not even available, and you definitely need the consent of the children. Strict privacy regulations are part of the Data Protection Directive and several codes of conduct in European Union states."
Furthermore, and again based on conversations with app developers and service providers, he says: "The perception of the need for these kinds of services is not as high in Europe and Canada." Not surprisingly, then, family locator services are more widespread in the United States than elsewhere. In Europe, only a dozen mobile operators out of about 100 sell people-locating services for the consumer market, mostly billed as friend finders or general location services.
And Malm says Life360, the leading provider in the field, with about 25 million users, has historically claimed about 90 percent of its users are based in the United States, although the share is now growing in other geographies, including Europe.
This is perhaps not surprising. After all, while attitudes to privacy and personal freedom may vary from one culture to another, the gut-wrenching fear of not knowing where your children are is pretty universal among parents.
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