An app for predators? Technology misapplied.


 
Recently my attention was drawn to a smartphone app that promised to assist in reuniting parents with their lost offspring. I was left amazed that such a worthy idea could be so very poorly implemented, putting the safety of the children of any of their subscribers at potential risk.
 
The app works like this:
 
1 – Parent downloads the app and buys a subscription, enabling them to add their children in preparation for the day(s) when they eventually go missing. I’m not joking, I have three kids, I know how often this happens and I remember putting my mum through the same heartache, more than once. So far so good…
 
2 – A like-minded “community” of individuals, interested in the welfare of children and in keeping the blood-pressure of parents at manageable levels, downloads the free version of the app. These people do not upload any child details; they are the “support network”.
 
3 – Young Tarquin decides that the pet shop is far more interesting than the plumbing supplies outlet where dad had intended whiling away his afternoon and goes off for a wander.
 
4 – Somewhere between the Ring Seal Soil Sockets and the Unvented Cylinders, dad realises that young Tarquin is no longer anywhere nearby and immediately sends out an alert on his smartphone app. Letting any other smartphone owner nearby (with the app installed) that young Tarquin has gone missing.
 
5 – Every member of the “support network” in the vicinity receives an alert, a photograph and the details of young Tarquin, exponentially increasing the chances that he will be quickly and safely found and returned. One of them will spot the youngster, approach him and send a message to the distraught father that all is well.
 
So far so good?
 
If you were a predator, interested in finding lost and vulnerable children, which app would you download first?
 
The manufacturers of the app counter the predator argument with the assertion that, having broadcast the details of the missing child in the local area, the app creates a “white hot zone” of risk which would keep predators away. The fact that so many people in the area know this child is missing means that predators won’t dare approach the vulnerable kids.
 
This counter-argument relies on two things; first that a sufficiently large number of people download the app, creating this white hot zone and second that the elevated level of suspicion in the area doesn’t simply mean that *no one* dares approach the child for fear of being accused of being that predator. I know how it is, particularly as a guy, you have to think twice or even more, about whether you should approach the crying child in the playground to offer your help, even if you’re with your own kids.
 
In a worst case scenario, the manufacturers also assert that they have the contact details of everyone who installs the app. I installed it to test, I was able to enter any email address, any phone number and any name, there was no verification step for any of them and the app functioned, even with entirely bogus details. Their privacy policy expressly states that they do not store any location data from their users on their servers meaning that little of use could be supplied to law enforcement should anything go wrong anyway.
 
While I applaud the motivation behind the app and the harnessing of now ubiquitous technology to try and keep children safe, I can’t help but feel there are more sensible ways to doing than broadcasting the name, photo and probable location of your child to anyone who cares to listen. This problem needs to approached with technology that leaves the child in control. For now, that means making sure they know exactly what to do and what not to do, should they beocme separated from you.
 
You can’t have it both ways, either strangers are allowed to approach the child, or they are not. The public information film at the top of this post might be from 1973, but it’s as true now as it was then “Never go anywhere with men or ladies that you don’t know.” And it really doesn’t make any difference if they are holding an iPhone.
 

One thought on “An app for predators? Technology misapplied.

  1. Pingback: 有了這款協尋兒童手機app,爸媽再也不擔心小孩走失? | 雲端防毒是趨勢

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