The IT Guy: GPS device tracks your tots and teens

mbonner@islandpacketSeptember 9, 2012 

  • Morgan Bonner answers your computer questions and offers tech suggestions.

    Send your questions to theitguy@islandpacket.com or follow him at twitter.com/packetITguy.

A few weeks ago, as my 3-year-old son was finished with his bath, he tried to climb out of the tub by himself as I was reaching for his towel. I stopped him and said, "Don't try to climb out by yourself. I will lift you out of the tub."

To which he asked, "Why?"

I replied, "Because your feet are wet and you could slip and hurt yourself very badly."

He got a confused look on his face -- a look I'd never seen before -- so I felt compelled to explain further. "I'm your Daddy, and that means my job is to protect you and keep you safe no matter what. Right now you don't realize all the things that can hurt you, but I do."

That got me a thoroughly adorable "thank you, Daddy" in return.

This conversation has been on my mind as I've been testing out the Amber Alert GPS system. It's exactly what you'd imagine it is -- a small GPS receiver about the size of a mini-Snickers bar that also contains a GSM cell radio for getting a fix on indoor positions. The device costs $199, and then you have to sign up for a monthly service. So the idea is you give your child the GPS receiver, send them on their way each morning, and have peace of mind that you'll know where they are at all times.

The Amber Alert GPS service itself has lots of bells and whistles. Their basic package is $14.99 a month, and includes the location service via either their website or iPhone or Android app, 100 SMS low battery or SOS alerts, and a one-year contract. Upgrade to the $18.99 a month package and you additionally receive four more features: "breadcrumbing," which allows you to receive alerts automatically about your child's location at intervals you set up; "speed alert," which allows you to set a maximum speed they are allowed to travel at and alert you if they're going too fast; "zone alert," to receive an alert if they have wandered outside a pre-defined location; and "predator alert," so you can be alerted if they come within 500 feet of a registered sex offenders home.

I have to admit, testing this feature and seeing all the registered offenders who live in Beaufort County made me more than a little uneasy. Clicking on their icons and seeing their names, pictures and addresses made me feel completely creepy, and I stopped immediately. And for anyone else who feels a little weird violating the privacy of others, just for good measure you can call your device's number, and listen in to what's happening. It doesn't ring or give any other indication that you're there; you just get to eavesdrop on your child.

In my testing, the device worked well and did what it said it would do. There are some caveats to consider, however.

First, and it seems silly to say for something as small as a mini candy bar, the GPS device is too big for my tastes. Granted, I'm using it with a 3-year-old, but it really stands out. The company sells lanyards and pouches with belt clips, but let's face it: If anyone wants to take your child, this device stands out like a sore thumb and will be removed immediately. Realistically, it needs to go in a pants pocket, which your child may or may not have.

Call me crazy, but this brings up another issue I'm not comfortable with: As with any cell radio, the device is emitting a small amount of radiation. The company was unable to provide me with a SAR (specific absorption rate) amount, and it's probably not a big deal for an adult (although the jury is still out on that). But children's bodies are obviously smaller and still developing, so it doesn't strike me as a good idea to have them being pumped full of radiation all day long. Depending on the age, it seems like you'd need to get creative about where you'd place this device. Maybe in their backpacks so at least it's with them as they go to and from school.

I'm hopeful that this technology will be refined in the future. If the device can be made smaller, I'd be more inclined to use it. The monthly fee is pretty steep as well -- $180 a year for the basic package on top of the $199 for the device isn't cheap. It's just a high-tech type of insurance, I suppose; you have to decide if it's worth the investment. Because my son isn't out of my sight save for when he's inside his school, I have time to wait and will continue to keep looking and waiting for that perfect blend of form and function.

However, if you're interested in this device right now, go to www.amberalertgps.com for more information.

Morgan Bonner is pre-press manager and a systems administrator for the Packet and Gazette.

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