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Just because you can track someone, should you?

GPS is the feature-du-jour of many connected devices, mobile applications, and other wearables hitting the App Store and Google Play markets. Many of these newcomers target parents and families looking to protect their children and loved ones, as it’s easier than ever to keep tabs on others’ safety using our everyday devices.

Want to know where the kids are on their commute from school? Transport with Uber-like Shuddle, or track them with a Circo once it hits the shelves.
Chance, Sassy, and Shadow run away? Hopefully, they have collar Taggs.
Has Grandma wandered off? Find out quickly with GPS SmartSoles.

Tagg Pet
Tagg app and collar wearable lets users track pets easily.

The ability to track each other (and, ourselves) for safety’s sake certainly isn’t something new. To be honest, I’ve longed for a Lifeline device since the wise age of 10. It is, however, much simpler to access and understand GPS technology and its data output when our smartphones and tablets are already enabled with these capabilities. There’s no need to hire a private investigator or spend hundreds on a bluetooth tracking chip when checking in on a family member’s location is as easy as opening an app. This seamlessness and ease of use may offer convenience and peace of mind, but at what cost to privacy?

We all can think back to our childhoods when moments of private solace were accessible and (remotely) within our control. Running to the corner store after school, biking to a friend’s house, and even sneaking out at night were at least rituals, if not the norm. Although the world has evolved and crime can sometimes be a realer threat today, the expectation and right to privacy remains.

Life360’s check-in and GPS tracking features.

Take Life360, for example. An app of choice for 50 million families, Life360 markets itself as the ultimate tool for avoiding the inane “where are you?” texts that spring up six to eight times per day, during normally hectic weeks. Each family member, as part of a private circle, can turn their GPS on/off within the app so that others can see their location with ease. Users can also set up familiar locations to automatically “check in” once they’ve arrived at home, work, or school.

I can already hear the faint sound of teenagers reeling aloud at parents knowing their every move.

From Life360, to its predecessor Glympse, to other aforementioned navigation/social networking apps and wearables, the safety concerns mitigated with their use are indeed alluring and key benefits. In fact, App Annie data indicates that “safety” is among the top App Store search terms that lead iPhone users to Life360. I won’t refute that safety benefits of such apps do exist. I am questioning the ethical dilemma at hand, though: at what point do we draw the line between the information we can gather and that which we truly need to?

Data collection for safety’s sake is desirable, but it indeed is a slippery slope into a violation of privacy. As it becomes easier to automate, track, and analyze the data we give and receive, a human element of caution must be present. Continually weighing safety concerns against other lifestyle needs is the only way to ensure the right balance between risk and reward is maintained. Because, technological innovations will never cease to blind us with new data tracking possibilities primed for abuse.

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