Yesterday’s Morning Edition on NPR featured a story on parents’ use of Global Positioning Systems technology or “black boxes” to secretly track their children’s movements and monitor their driving.  Black box or “car chip” devices are, unbeknownst to many consumers, now standard on higher-end vehicles.   

So, using any computer, parents can monitor not only their kids’ locations, but the speed at which they are driving and their rate of acceleration and deceleration.  If the kids are aware that they’re being monitored, parents can honk the horn or flash the lights in warning.  Similar tracking chips are able to be hidden in cell phones, and, soon, cell phones will be available with hidden cameras that can transmit images back to Daddy’s laptop at work. So much for necking in the back seat of the car. 

It isn’t so much the technology itself that I find troubling; it’s the temptation that parents will have to use it furtively, as did the parents who were featured on the radio spot.  Too much control is not necessarily a good thing.  Tracking a six or eight year old by installing a GPS chip in his belt might make sense and might provide enormous relief to parents with reasonable fears about small ones getting lost or abducted.  But even the smallest child needs his own private space—a spot to which he can comfortably retreat and know that under reasonable circumstances it won’t be trespassed, even by those who mean him well.  Such autonomy, gradually increased with age, is critical to children’s development, allows them to learn from their mistakes, and teaches decision-making and judgment.  As Steve Shlozman, a child psychiatrist that was interviewed for the spot, says: 

 . . . kids need enough slack to learn to make good choices on their own, not just because they know Mom and Dad are watching. . . that’s the moment of growth — and you lose that if you monitor them . . . they won’t grow up; they’ll get stuck developmentally.

But, even if you don’t agree with this particular philosophy of child-rearing, even if you believe that constant monitoring is an indication of constant love and protection, you must agree that secret surveillance sends kids the wrong ethical message.  It basically sends the message that if authority figures, regardless of their competence or own sense of good judgment, determine that it is in your best interest, they can violate your right to autonomy and privacy without your knowledge.  They can engage in deception, can lie through omission, and breach your trust.  Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?  If Big Daddy Cheney had his way, secret monitoring devices would likely be installed in the cell phones of not only suspected terrorists, but in those of their associates and family members, regardless of probable cause and without a court order. 

As noted above, such chips are now standard in many new autos and have been used after major accidents, by police and insurance investigators, to determine culpability.  Not such a bad idea, except that the people involved were not even aware that the chips were in their cars.  Proposed legislation is still trying to grapple with this.  (and I can’t vouch for the credibility of this source) provides the following anecdote:

EDR [Event Data Recorder] technology burst out into the public eye in a big way in 2002, when Walter Rhoads was successfully prosecuted in Pennsylvania (in May 2002) using data taken from his cars’ EDR.  The Pennsylvania Highway patrol, without Rhoad’s permission, took the EDR information from his wrecked car and used it to prove his speed and braking just prior to the crash.     In this instance, Rhoads had been driving far too fast and tried to brake only 2 seconds prior to the accident.     However, despite the specifics of Mr. Rhoad’s bad driving habits, the mere fact that data from his automobile was taken without his permission and then used against him in court…creating a troubling precedent and raises the question…. To whom does the information in your car’s EDR belong??

Children, adults, and especially teenagers have always and will continue to test limits, to their greater or lesser peril.  I see this every day when I observe nitwits driving 10-20 MPH over the speed limit and tailgating others.  They are putting not only their lives at risk, but mine as well.  But would I advocate installing sensors in their cars that would emit ear-piercing high-frequency warnings every time that they transgressed?  Tempting, but no.  Limit testing is sometimes positive, sometimes negative, and, particularly for teenagers, is a way of learning what is bad and what is good.  Criminals violate rules, but so did early scientists, without whom we wouldn’t have this technology in the first place. 

If parents want to track their kids, they should inform them that they’re tracking them, and then they can sit down and have a discussion about responsibility, freedom, and consequences, if they are the type to have such discussions.  If they are not, then that may be the reason they need the tracking devices in the first place.  And if the kids, consequently, turn off the cell phone so that they can visit that restricted friend, then so be it.  They will at least feel that their trust has not been violated and will have a chance to develop into capable, strong-willed individuals, right or wrong, scathed or unscathed.