Fast Forward by Rob Pegoraro, Personal Tech Columnist

Watch Out, Kids: With GPS Phones, Big Mother Is Watching

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By Rob Pegoraro
Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Ever since the first telecom engineer figured out how to cram a Global Positioning System receiver into a cellphone, people have worried about how "They" might exploit those features.

Either the feds would follow our footsteps or we'd see phones spammed with ads for every business within a mile. Or both things would happen at the same time.

But instead of Big Brother, we may be dealing with Big Mother.

Last week, Sprint Nextel Corp. introduced a new service called Family Locator that lets parents track their kids' whereabouts, using the GPS capabilities in each child's cellphone. For $9.99 a month, you can get a fix on your little ones' locations as long as they are on your Sprint account and carry one of the 30 Sprint or Nextel phones that allow this monitoring.

As demonstrated by a Sprint publicist yesterday, the service was deceptively easy to use . . . considering that the whole idea would have been science-fiction fodder a decade ago.

I logged in to a page on Sprint's Web site ( http://www.sprint.com/familylocator ) with a phone number and password provided for the occasion, and a moment later, a green icon on a map of Sprint's Overland Park, Kan., corporate campus reported the location of another Sprint employee.

The accuracy, as indicated by a wide blue circle around that green dot, was not so great -- only "within 644 yards," according to the page's suspiciously precise estimate -- so I clicked a "Locate" button.

Within a minute, the system had pinned down my target's location to within a 98-yard radius, close enough to call in the airstrike -- I mean, identify what street she was on. (Sorry, got distracted for a second.)

The most precise estimates rely on the GPS receivers built into these phones. When that satellite signal isn't available, such as when the phone is indoors, the system computes an estimate from the phone's distance to the nearest cell tower.

Sprint's Web interface offered a few other options: I could click a button to send a text message to the object of my surveillance or click another button to see her recent locations plotted on the map as numbered "breadcrumbs."

A similar but less graphically detailed version of this interface can be used on some Sprint phones, allowing you to pinpoint your progeny from just about anywhere. You can also schedule "safety checks" -- automatic, scheduled look-ups to ensure they're in school or at soccer practice on schedule.

All that could be enormously appealing to any parents nervous about the horrible things that could befall their kids out there. (That it would also help Sprint get more cellphones into the age-12-and-under market is a handy side benefit for the company.)

The objects of this surveillance, however, might not be so gung-ho about carrying around cellphones that double as homing beacons.

Sprint says it has tried to build in measures to stop parents from being too aggressive in their snooping: Kids must authorize tracking by entering a password on their own phones, and the phone will also buzz or beep every time its location is checked.

So at least the trackees can know exactly how they are being followed and can react accordingly -- say, by abandoning the phone on a church pew before running off to the mall.

The whole idea of tracking your family in this manner is weird and alarming on some levels. So is the notion that we're all so deathly afraid for our kids that there's even a market for this.

But now that the technology is out there, it's not going away anytime soon. Consider the other location-based services developed by the company behind Sprint's service, Emeryville, Calif.-based WaveMarket Inc.: One lets you set up social gatherings with nearby friends, another finds businesses, a third provides driving directions, and yet another "enables enterprises and fleet managers to manage mobile assets."

It's the last scenario that you need to worry about. It's one thing to be followed by your parents, your spouse, your kids or your friends. But your boss, too?

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro atrob@twp.com.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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