Mobile Technology Keeps Track of Kids

Parents wishing to keep track of their kids without having to call their cellular phones can subscribe to ChildLocate, a mobile location-based service.

The service, which was launched last month, is available in the U.K. It is among the first to use handset identification capabilities of GSM (Global System for Mobile Communication) technology for locating children's phones within cell-based networks, according to Jon Magnusson, managing director of MobileLocate, the Newbury, England, company that is launching the service.

"We hope to provide the service in several other key European markets within the next six months," he says.

Checking Up

Many parents in Europe have been buying mobile phones for their children largely for security reasons, but children are often annoyed by frequent calls from parents checking on them, according to Magnusson. "Here is a way for parents to keep track of their kids without having to make repeated calls," he says.

Parents with computers can go to the ChildLocate portal where, after entering their password, they can tap in the phone number of their child's phone and view a map showing the child's location within 25 seconds. Those preferring to use their mobile phones can send a text message via SMS with the name of their child and password and receive a response per SMS.

The accuracy of the location ranges from 50 to 500 meters depending on the concentration of base stations. "Location accuracy tends to be much better in the larger cities where the concentration of mobile base stations is greater but even in rural areas, it's still pretty good," Magnusson says.

Tech Tools

Currently, the ChildLocate service is based on cell identification capabilities built into GSM networks, he said. New triangulation technology, which is being deployed in U.S. wireless networks to comply with the Federal Communications Commission's 911 emergency call order, would provide greater accuracy but also at a greater cost.

"Triangulation requires a cell upgrade and thus an investment, which European operators in the past haven't been prepared to make," Magnusson says. "But as demand for location-based services grows, we're seeing more operators agree to invest in triangulation technology, and that's going to make our service more accurate down the road."

Triangulation effectively measures the strength of signals between three different base stations and the handset to determine location.

U.K. mobile operators O2 (UK), T-Mobile UK, and Vodafone have agreed to provide the ChildLocate service on their networks, with Orange Personal Communications Services considered another "possible" candidate, according to Magnusson.

Security Concerns

However, MobileLocate, which has been testing ChildLocate since early October, has had to make some security changes, following several vulnerability reports. One report was posted on the Web site www.spy.org.uk, pointing to ChildLocate's use of flash pop-up forms for customers to log onto the system and send personal details.

"Several groups have pointed out security issues that we are rectifying at the moment," Magnusson says, conceding that the entire service wasn't encrypted. "We are installing 128-bit encryption," he says. "This encryption, which we believe is the best you can get, will cover the entire process--from the customer accessing the service to the location request being sent to the network and then relayed back to the customer."

In the U.K., ChildLocate will cost $17 per month, entitling the parents to make 10 location requests. Customers can register up to 14 mobile phones for the service.

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