Parents: How many times have you wondered if your teen was actually hanging out at the Lodi Stadium 12 or the 180 Teen Center, or getting drunk and high at some keg party in a secluded vineyard?
Once upon a time parents could only find out by asking - or maybe interrogating - but cell phones can now be outfitted with software that can be used to track a teen's location. Other companies offer devices that can be installed in cars and allow parents to track their children's movements via automobile.
Melinda Guzman is a Lodi mom who likes calling her 15-year-old son to make sure he's safe and where he's supposed to be. He is supposed to turn on his phone after school and when he's out with friends. But when he doesn't answer her calls, her usual solution is waiting till he gets home, then barring him from certain places.
She'd consider getting a GPS tracker for her children, as long as it was affordable, and couldn't be turned off.
Similar to a hidden "LoJack" alarm that alerts police to a stolen vehicle's location, GPS trackers in cell phones can pinpoint a wayward teenager - or at least, their phone. The trackers work similarly to OnStar, the vehicle service that combines GPS and cell phone technology with an auto's electronics. When a button is pressed in a car or from an emergency device, it relays a cell phone call directly to an "advisor" who can locate a vehicle and as needed, remotely open its doors, activate its horn and lights and call for emergency assistance.
Cell phone provider Verizon Wireless introduced a service in June called "Chaperone," available on their Migo phones for elementary-school aged children. The Migo has five preprogrammable buttons for dialing "important people."
Chaperone allows parents to track their child's location using a Web site map available on a computer or cell phone. Chaperone can send parents a cell-phone alert if their child's phone travels in or out of a certain area, a technology called "geofencing." Verizon calls it a "ChildZone."
Sprint, which has offered "Fleet Tracking" to businesses since last year, reinvented the application in April as "Family Locator Service." Every Sprint phone sold since 2002 has a GPS receiver installed.
Deanna Olmos, a Lodi mom, said she wouldn't use tracking software on her 17-year-old daughter. For younger children, the service would be ideal, she said, "just for safety issues."
Alltrack USA offers vehicle tracking products. "Passive tracking" devices store a vehicle's route, speed and how long the vehicle remained at each location. A typical unit records up to 600 hours of information, weighs less than 10 ounces, and is about the size of a deck of cards. The piece would be hooked into a computer for downloading maps and travel reports.
Alltrack USA's real-time tracking, available since 1998, allows parents to call a telephone number or access a Web site that tells where a vehicle is traveling and at what speed. It also has geofencing capabilities.
GPS at a glanceGlobal Positioning System is the only fully functional satellite navigation system. It was developed by the U.S. Department of Defense. More than two dozen satellites orbit Earth, broadcasting signals by radio that can precisely determine the location of devices fitted with GPS receivers. In 2005, next-generation satellites were added to the originally 24 for civilian use.
GPS receivers locations are gauged by latitude, longitude, elevation and time, using data from several satellites at once.
Other applications of GPS: Navigation (cars, aircraft, ships, and mountain climbers); land surveying; precise time measurement.
Using different techniques, GPS can pinpoint locations within 6 feet, or in some cases, 1 centimeter.
Sources: HowStuffWorks.com, Wikipedia.org.
The GPS tracking providers largely say their services offer "peace of mind." Irvine-based CATS Communication says on its Web site that its CAT Trax program, available through Sprint, "every parent needs the ability to communicate with their child, and know their child is able to reach them." Verizon makes a similar claim, that tracking is for "busy families to keep their lines of communication open." Alltrack's Web site says, "Your teenager doesn't have the wisdom of an adult yet. That's why they need your close supervision and attention."
Sprint's account executive for Lodi, Stockton and Modesto, Liz Allen, said she hadn't heard of any families purchasing it yet.
A University of the Pacific criminology professor, John Phillips, said he personally was suspicious of people selling such "spyware." He had words of caution for parents: "If you don't trust them you probably shouldn't let them drive." He wondered whether such electronic surveillance "is almost like a substitute for parents actually caring."
Phillips also noted that while freedom and privacy is valuable for teens' character-building, parents do have a right to do what they wish with the cell phones and cars they own, and furthermore, have a right to supervise their children. If technology allows an extension of human observations, he wondered whether parents would hesitate on tracking their children if they knew their children could, in turn, track them.
Lodi mother Liz Ashbaugh said she thinks a GPS tracker is a great idea, especially if it could be installed secretly. All kids have cell phones, and are attached to them, she said.
"If I could afford it, it might be a good idea," Lodi mom Guzman said. "My mother should have had one for me."
"What's your opinion about being tracked by your parents using GPS in your cell phone or car?"Asked at Lakewood Mall, outside Reese Elementary School, and outside Stadium 12 Theatre.
"A lot of teenagers are irresponsible and it's important that parents know where their kids are all the time."
Morissa Vanhorne, 15
"I'd be pretty mad about it. My mom could find me if I would be somewhere I wasn't supposed to be."
Alex Arellano, 16
"There are advantages and disadvatages to it. If your phone gets stolen you could see where it is, or if your car breaks down you could contact someone for help. The disadvantage is if you don't want to be found."
Clemente Padilla, 19
"If your parents say they trust you but then they search for you on the Internet, it's telling you they don't. I always pick up my phone; my parents trust me."
Jessica Powell, 16
"I knew a girl that had GPS in her car. She was bored. She had no life. She never went anywhere."
Robert Wilkinson, 21
"It depends on how much the parents trust their kids. If the kid is into drinking and partying … it would be real easy for someone to leave their cell phone at someone's house, there's a lot of ways to get around it."
Sarah Abbey, 16
"It's an invasion of privacy for someone who's trustworthy. It might be necessary if the child is in need of parental intervention."
Elyse Dickey, 15
"I don't think it's a problem. It would only be a problem if the kid knew they were doing something wrong."
Melissa Levy, 15
First published: Wednesday, July 19, 2006