Michael and Ilene Berson have been wonderful friends to the Internet Safety Group. The ISG survey 'Girls on the Net' was inspired by work they did in the USA. They both journeyed to New Zealand in 2002 to present at the NetSafe symposium and again returned for the NetSafe II conference in July 2003 and the NetSafe Conference in 2006. We are pleased to have them as Guest Editors of this page.
Ilene R. Berson, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Early Childhood Education in the Department of Childhood Education at the University of South Florida (USF). She is the coordinator of the Early Childhood Education doctoral program and instructs courses in advocacy and leadership in early childhood. Dr. Berson has extensive experience working with children ages birth to eight, and she is a nationally certified and state licensed school psychologist.
Michael J. Berson, Ph.D. is a Professor in the Secondary Education Department at the University of South Florida (USF). He instructs courses in Social Science Methodology and is the coordinator of the doctoral program in social science education. His courses have been nationally recognized for integrating emerging technologies into instruction and modeling dynamic and fluid pedagogy.
An International Perspective on the Techno-tracking of Children:
The Promise and Perils for Safety and Privacy in the Digital Age
Recent events, including school shootings, child abductions, and terrorist acts, have intensified concerns over potential threats to children’s safety and security. This concern has manifested itself in numerous technological developments that have been designed or adapted to protect children and prevent harm. However, technology has an adverse side, and its role in surveillance has raised concerns about privacy. Debate is ensuing whether technology is always the right solution for child protection concerns.
Modern technology has provided the means to track children. Opponents of techno-tracking believe that a reliance on technology introduces infringements to privacy that are too great a price to pay for better security. However, communities around the world are exploring various options with mixed results.
As the price of technology solutions continues to drop, parents are increasingly enticed by many emerging products that focus on monitoring the whereabouts of children, and schools are seeking out new ways to ensure the safety of the children in their care. One example involves radio frequency identification technology, or RFID. Using a technology that has been used by retailers to track merchandise and by ranchers to monitor livestock, embedded computer chips are each programmed with a unique number, and a tiny antenna transmits the information to nearby scanners. Some school authorities in Japan and the United States have introduced student identification tags on name badges, clothing, or backpacks. The RFID chips are scanned and track students when they enter the school building. A company in Mexico has taken this one step further by offering a service to implant microchips in children as an anti-kidnapping device.
Malls and amusement parks in the United States and Denmark have also looked toward technology to help parents keep track of their children. Using a combination of RFID and wireless technology, wristbands can be rented that broadcast a signal, and the location of a child can be ascertained from kiosks. The devices also have other features and can be used to send messages amongst members of the family or locate nearby restaurants or restrooms. A similar device using GPS technology is marketed by one company, allowing parents to access information about their child’s whereabouts through a simple phone call. Whereas the RFID devices have a short range capacity and are most ideal for confined spaces, the GPS devices pinpoint the location of children in real time and can replay their whereabouts over the last few hours. Some also feature panic buttons that can instantly alert a parent via phone in case of an emergency.
While some features of the technology are perceived to be beneficial, the implementation of this technology has initiated debates over the trade-offs between security and privacy. In the U.S. various groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, argue that techno-surveillance of children breaches rights to privacy and treats children like inventory. Concerns have been expressed that the safety and security of students could be jeopardized. Although children in most countries do not have the same rights to privacy as adults, those limited rights of children may be unfairly negated by this technology. There have been outcries in Europe that children’s privacy might be infringed upon by identity cards that carry health information about a child. In the United States parents typically have authority over children’s information, and the Supreme Court has “recognized three reasons justifying the conclusion that the constitutional rights of children cannot be equated with those of adults: the peculiar vulnerability of children; their inability to make critical decisions in an informed, mature manner; and the importance of the parental role in child rearing.” There are no clear rules in the U.S. prohibiting parents from using techno-surveillance in their families. Therefore, U.S. parents generally have tremendous latitude in monitoring the whereabouts of their children. In contrast, U.S. laws have been passed to safeguard children from privacy invasions by others. For example, the Children's Privacy Protection Act of 1998 restricts Web site operators from collecting and disseminating information pertaining to patrons under the age of 13.
Individual families will continue to grapple with privacy issues and the appropriateness of techno-tracking, as well as the impact on the parent-child relationship; however, the infusion of this technology into public spaces, such as schools or malls, creates widespread concerns about the transformation of a device to protect safety to one that could be abused by others. Questions such as what happens to the data collected, and who has access to the tracking information, are especially salient in light of recent events in which data has been breached by unauthorized users or for unintended purposes. In Northern California, the use of RFID devices in a school district was abandoned after parents and privacy advocates objected to tracking children without caregiver knowledge or consent.
Opponents also have warned that tech-savvy kids will eventually figure out how to manipulate the devices into false reporting their location. Since the devices can be easily removed from the body of a child, either the child or others may be motivated to fool the device. Additionally, techno-tracking services could be used as a tool of stalkers, kidnappers, child predators, etc. to pinpoint the location of children in real time.
Although companies producing the devices have countered that privacy protections have been designed in the system, such as limited range of ID readers and active scanning by touching a screen rather than passive detection of identification tags, evolving capabilities and adaptations of the technology could result in incidents in which the identity and location of a child is broadcasted to anyone with a chip reader. Technical insecurity of the systems, combined with potential inaccuracies that generate misleading information about a child’s location, suggests that this form of surveillance lacks sufficient security to safeguard vulnerable children.
Our communities often look to technology as an ideal solution to social problems; however, the real answer may be related to committing and accessing sufficient human resources devoted to child protection. We need to continue to explore both technological and non-technological approaches to safeguarding children while being cognizant that this is a complex issue that requires careful deliberation of the intended and unintended consequences of tracking children in the digital age.