Gadget Freak: Tracking the Wild Teenager--Spy Tools for the Whole Family
When I told my wife I was planning to stalk my family members for this column, she got a bit testy. "Who are you stalking? Where? For how long?" she demanded.
I thought maybe I'd caught her having an affair. Turns out she just didn't want me to know she sneaks off to shop.
Playing P.I. with the family does have a certain attraction. Although my kids aren't yet teens, in a few years I'm sure I'll want to tail my daughter when she goes on dates, and train a speed gun on my leadfooted son. Fortunately, there are a few gadgets that will do the dirty work for me.
Rattle and Roll
First I tried out the Road Safety RS-1000 ($280), a black box about 6 inches square with a PC Card-size CPU inside. I plugged the RS-1000's cable into my '96 Honda's data link connector beneath the dash and hid the box under a seat.
The RS-1000 is like a backseat driver who never shuts up. Accelerate too rapidly and the box beeps; take a turn too sharply and it rattles. I forgot to tell my wife about it, so the first time it rattled at her she thought a baby diamondback was hiding under her chair.
The alerts should make your teenagers better drivers, says Larry Selditz, president of Road Safety International. RSI's own surveys indicate that most kids quickly modify their habits (some just crank the stereo up louder).
The RS-1000 lets you remove the processor from the box, attach a USB cable, and download the data to your PC--its coolest feature. Once there, you can view a graph displaying driving activity second-by-second, so you can show your child the precise instant he exceeded 80 mph and got grounded for life. A decibel detector tells you if junior pumps up the volume when you're not in the car.
The rubber really hits the road when you can track not only how your kids are driving, but where they've been. Selditz expects a GPS module for the RS-1000 to be available in early 2006. Meantime, I did some snooping with the Little Brother ($595), a cigarette-lighter- size, auto-based GPS tracker sold by Securacom.
To get a feel for how the device works, I logged into Securacom's tracking site and watched a cop car with a GPS unit move across a map. A detailed report told me everywhere it had been, how far it had gone, and how fast it was traveling. I was fascinateda??and a little creeped out.
Tracking your kids when they're not in a car is dicier. Nextel's BlackBerry 7520 ($199 plus service plan), a GPS-enabled cell phone/messaging device, and MapQuest's Find Me service offer a potential solution. For a mere $4 to $6 a month, you can track Find Me users (with their permission) carrying select GPS phones, and see their location on the BlackBerry's screen or on the Find Me site. At least theoretically.
Because GPS doesn't work well indoors, you can instruct Findme to use cell towers to locate those you're tracking, but that has its own problems. The GPS had me within a few yards of my location, but the cell towers placed me 3 to 10 miles away. With this tracking method, once my kids head indoors, I might know what county they're in, but not much else. I failed to find this comforting.
Keeping track of where my kids are and what they're doing is fine--if they know that I'm watching and they understand why. But I have no reservations about spying on my wife. I want to find out what mischief she's up to before the credit card bills arrive.