Keeping loved ones on the grid


New York Times News Service

They say that if you love something, set it free. Good advice, but you still might want to keep your eye on it.

So the other day, I slipped a GPS tracking device into my wife’s car before she headed to work. I put another tracker in my 2-year-old’s diaper bag and sent him off to the nanny for the day. I still had a few trackers left and my parents were in town, so I also threw one into their vehicle while they took my son to the park.

Of course, I had never suspected any wrongdoing and, later on, when I reviewed the trails left by these GPS devices, they turned up nothing untoward. My spying was meant only as an experiment, but I still felt like a heel.

As well I should have. It’s precisely because of mischief like mine that tracking devices get a bad reputation. These small gadgets work by connecting to GPS satellites and cellular networks to follow subjects and report back their locations to their masters.

Once I sent them out into the world, I could look up the trackers online, either on the Web or through a smartphone app. They could also be configured to send me alerts based on various criteria. If my wife’s car left her office parking lot during the day or my parents’ vehicle broke the speed limit, I might get a text alert.

If your mind reels at the universe of Maury Povichian possibilities contained within these gadgets, you’re not alone.

Yet after talking to representatives at several GPS tracking companies and trying their products, I learned that there are many less icky, entirely defensible uses for such devices. For example, some parents use trackers to make sure their children get to school and back safely each day. Others build them into their teenage drivers’ cars so they can be alerted if they drive recklessly.

There’s also the elder-care market: GPS trackers embedded into medical-alert devices can help locate and provide emergency help for parents with Alzheimer’s.

And don’t forget the dog: A tracker attached to its collar can let you know if it wanders out of your yard and help you find it if it doesn’t come back.

The more I heard about these devices’ applications, the less unseemly they began to feel; indeed, for many people, GPS tracking could soon become a regular part of life.

Amber Alert

Among the companies pushing for this future is Amber Alert GPS, a Utah-based firm that was founded in 2007 after Russell Thornton, a businessman, lost his 3-year-old son at an amusement park. After a frantic 45-minute search, Thornton found the boy hiding in a play structure, but he was traumatized by the incident, and it spurred him to build a device that would help other parents avoid that fate.

Amber Alert’s tracker is about the size of a child’s palm, and it looks a bit like an old-school pager. It can be slipped into a pocket or backpack, or placed in a carrying case attached to a child’s belt loop.

Carol Colombo, the chief executive of Amber Alert GPS, said most customers buy the device for children ages 2 to 10: old enough to be mobile but too young to carry a cellphone. Still, the Amber Alert can act as a quasi-phone; with a press of a button on the device, your children can send a text or initiate a voice call with you, and you can dial in to the tracker and listen to their surroundings.

I found the Amber Alert extremely simple to set up and use. The company’s website, which allows you to configure and monitor the tracker, is well-designed and intuitive, and its iPhone and Android apps also work quite well. Amber Alert offers more customizable alert settings than any other child-tracking system I tested: Among them, there’s an option to receive an alert each time your child comes within 500 feet of an address listed on a sex-offender database.

The only downside to the Amber Alert is its price. The device sells for $200, and it requires a service plan, $14.99 a month for basic tracking features, and $24.99 a month if you would like extras, including voice-calling and sex-offender alerts.

Securus eZoom

Another child-tracking device I tested, the Securus eZoom, is slightly larger than the Amber Alert and doesn’t have some of that device’s features (like voice calling), but it is also significantly cheaper. The eZoom sells for $99.99, and its monthly plan is $19.99. If you pay for two years at once, you can bring that down to $12.99 a month.

Securus also makes a couple of GPS devices for other uses. The eCare is meant for seniors who need medical help. In addition to tracking, it has an SOS button that puts in a voice call to an emergency call center. The eCare sells for $99.99, with a $29.99-a-month service plan.

Securus’ dog tracker, called SpotLite, is a water-resistant 2-ounce module that hooks onto your pet’s collar. (The company says the device is best for dogs weighing more than 10 pounds; it’s not recommended for cats because of its size.)

The Spot

Then there is a GPS device designed for keeping track of your most important possession: yourself. The SPOT Satellite GPS Messenger, which sells for $119.99 and requires a $99-a-year contract, is meant for adventurous types who routinely wander far off the grid.

If you find yourself in an emergency in a place without any cellphone connectivity, you can hit a button to alert rescuers to your location; the device works almost anywhere in the world as long as you have a clear view of the sky. If you’re not in trouble, you can use the SPOT to send a message letting your friends know you’re fine. They can also track your progress across the Outback on a map. The SPOT has led to dozens of rescues, including two people whose plane crashed into the Gulf of Mexico early in October.

Both Securus’ and Amber Alert’s services allow you to monitor multiple trackers at once. If you have many children and an ailing mom and a dog, you can watch them move about town on the same map, a kind of air-traffic control panel of familial concern.

As you’re watching this map, there’s a possibility you’ll have second thoughts about what you’re doing. Are you being a little paranoid? Do you really need to keep track of all these people (and pets) in your life? And what about your children’s privacy and personal space: Isn’t GPS tracking enabling helicopter parenting?

But the chief executives of both companies argue that GPS tracking can actually help parents avoid acting overly protective. Even though most statistics show that rates of violent crime against children have declined significantly over the past few decades and that abductions are extremely rare, it’s hard for some parents to get over the fear of letting children wander out into the world.

A GPS tracker can help parents conquer that anxiety: Because you know you’ll be able to find your children when they’re in trouble, you might allow them to walk to school, take the train to the movies or do any number of other grown-up things that children today don’t get to do.

What about your child’s privacy? Amber Alert and Securus both recommend that parents don’t hide the trackers from their children; indeed, the trackers work best if children know that they can use them to alert their parents during an emergency. Privacy becomes more important to children as they get older, but at a certain point they might consider trading their privacy for freedom.

“If the parents have a deal — `You can use my car if we put a locator on it, and if you ever get in a bind, I’ll know exactly where you are’ — most teenagers won’t mind that,” said Chris Newton, the chief executive of Securus.

Long contract

Neither Amber Alert nor Securus markets its devices to people who are looking to invade other people’s privacy. What’s more, both firms’ devices require at least a yearlong service contract, which make them somewhat unsuitable for the infidelity market. Why sign up for a year if you only want to track your straying spouse’s whereabouts for the next few weeks?

With that customer in mind, Rocky Mountain Tracking, a GPS firm that mainly sells trackers to companies looking to monitor their fleet vehicles, recently created a monthly rental plan for its personal tracking device, called Ghost Rider. For $99.95 a month, you’ll get the device and a service plan without a contract. You can use the device however you wish as long as you obey the law. (The rules of monitoring vehicles varies by state, but it’s generally considered legal if you’re tracking a car that you own.)

When you’re done with the device, you send it back to Rocky Mountain Tracking.

“We probably rent out 10 to 12 devices a month, and we don’t ask any questions,” said Gary Whitney, Rocky Mountain’s director of sales.

“Occasionally I’ll get a person — usually it’s the wife — who feels guilty about doing it,” he said. “But not so guilty that they don’t go ahead and get the device.”

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