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The Ethics of Using GPS to Track Your Children

written by: •edited by: Eric Stallsworth•updated: 8/28/2009

Creative applications of technology is what the present age is all about, but sometimes, these applications present some deep ethical controversies. GPS technology is an excellent example of this: knowing where your children are at all time may not necessarily be the right thing. Here's an overview.

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    Why Track?

    There are a number of reasons why a parent might want to track their children. The most pressing one is to quickly locate them in case of a kidnapping to prevent ransoming, rape—or worse. Children also have a tendency to wander off, which can be potentially dangerous out in the wilderness or even just the city. A related concern is just keeping the children from doing things that maybe they shouldn't be doing, like going where they're not supposed to be going, or driving too quickly.

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    Age Of The Child

    Many people distinguish between children of different ages as being more ethically sound targets for tracking. Because younger children are more likely to be kidnapped and less likely have the street smarts to prevent it, many people view that children of elementary school age are a more suitable target for tracking than older children, who are less commonly kidnapped in the first place.

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    Privacy & Trust

    Children are people too, even if they aren't legal adults quite yet. Many parents prefer to give their children some level of privacy, trusting in their children not to get themselves into trouble. This is viewed as part of growing up, giving the child more responsibilities on how to carry themselves in the real world. If they always feel like Big Brother is watching over their shoulder, how will they learn for themselves? Few parents particularly like the idea of a dystopian family. However, it does depend on the child rearing style.

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    Teenagers Are Smart (Believe It Or Not)

    Your kids are smarter than you think, especially when it comes to getting what they want. Just because you might have all these tracking devices hanging off of them doesn't mean they can't get around them. Teenagers like their privacy—they're almost adults, after all, and if you won't give it to them, chances are they'll find a way to get it. There are innumerable Internet resources that explain how to undo all these tracking measures, from hacking the phone to just passing it on to a friend while they wander off. It's hardly rocket science, so just because they aren't necessarily getting straight As doesn't mean they can't figure it out.

    Some people have pointed out that if something seems forbidden, rebellious teenagers are more likely to do it, hence many teen drinking problems. If you so strictly make something against the rules by going to the extreme length of tracking the child, what's to say that they won't deliberately go against it? Going for GPS tracking isn't necessarily an effective attitude towards child rearing.

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    Stalking Made Easier

    Of course, there's always the potential that the ability to track your children could get in the wrong hands, including possible stalkers, rapists, and kidnappers. All cellphones have tracking built into them, whether GPS or radio: it's just a matter of activating it, which can be done without the knowledge of either the phone user or the phone company. Installing software intentioned for tracking just makes it all the easier for third parties to do so. Even technology with the best of intentions can be used for worst of crimes.

    Even in the case of a kidnapping, GPS devices hardly guarantee the location of your child. Most kidnappers are intelligent enough to be aware of the possibility of such tracking technology, and will likely remove cell phones and other devices from their possession and deposit them in the nearest trash receptacle. Not particularly useful for police when it comes to finding your lost child.

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    Methods Of Tracking

    Some methods of tracking are more invasive than others. Tracking wristbands, for instance, are not only “uncool" for older children, but also are incredibly conspicuous and will more likely than not seriously upset a child with any kind of sense of privacy, perhaps making them even more resentful of parental controls. Having tracking running in background on a cell phone, on the other hand, may be viewed as slightly less offensive to most children, or a tracking device in the car for a teen.

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    Emergencies Only

    For real emergencies, you don't necessarily need these services to find your child. Most phone companies track their customers anyway, whether the parent enables the service for their own benefit or not. While this is a whole other can of worms for technology ethicists, companies do this deliberately to comply with governmental guidelines, which require that cell phones be traceable for purposes of 911 calls. So, if the worst case scenario happens—the real reason most parents want to track their children—the ability is already there. So, why bother with real time tracking on a minute-to-minute basis?