Family Locator Apps: Mother Is Big Brother?

The ninth radio column for my new series on CBC Radio’s Ottawa Morning. Robyn Bresnahan and I discuss apps that let you track your family member’s locations.

Listen to the column.

Where Are You?

Today’s families have demanding schedules. Even from a young age, children have their own activities and as they grow, keeping track of where everyone is can be a challenge. At least that’s what the creators of “Family Locator” apps are saying. Whether or not that is holds water depends on your family.

Regardless of your stance, these apps continue to move forward for Android and iOS. Popular choices like Life360, Sygic, MamaBear, Karavan, and others operate in a similar manner providing additional features when compared to native offerings like “Find My Friends” on iOS and “Trusted Contacts” from Google.

The Technology

Each app needs to be installed on the family member’s mobile device and—generally—granted permissions to location services and background connectivity.

The app will then regularly send updates as to the location of each device and a host of telemetry; how fast the device is moving, its orientation, battery remaining, signal strength, and more.

The service then shares this information with others within your circle. Allowing them to see each user is and where they have been.

Privacy

A privacy challenge with these applications is that you are now explicitly sharing detailed location information and family profiles with a third party. That creates a new risk for the family as the app provider now knows a significant amount about the family, including real-time locations.

Do you trust the app provider? Do you trust that they have adequate security measures in place to protect their systems and this information?

More importantly, did you read their terms of service and privacy policy? It’s easy to tell people to read through these lengthy, legal documents but very few people do and those that do can have a difficult time truly understanding what they allow.

Shockingly, when I read through several prominent providers privacy policies, they allowed the companies to either use the data to target advertising or to sell your behavioural data “anonymized” to third parties.

Trust

In addition to the trust issues with the service provider, these applications raise a number of questions around parenting style, family dynamics, and trust.

Thankfully companies have shied away from some initial positioning around using these applications to track children without their awareness but it’s still a critical issue that should be discussed by the family.

Surveillance and trust in digital systems is an ongoing and increasingly important issue in today’s digital world. These types of technologies present a fantastic opportunity to start (or continue) that discussion.

An Exception and An Example

Most of this post has been focused on third party apps in this space. An exception does stand out and that’s the features built directly into Apple’s iOS. “Find My Friends” and “Find My Phone” are essentially the same types of offer but with a significant different: the data is restricted to your devices and iCloud accounts.

These have clear boundaries (Apple can’t mine your iCloud account and will only provide access to law enforcement under a court order) which makes it easier to understand where your data is.

Additionally the user experience around enabling and using the features is much simpler. Part of that is Apples focus on experiences but also because they are built into the Apple ecosystem.

During the CBC Radio segment, Doug Hempstead used his own family as an example and it’s a great one. The family has;

That’s an example we can all follow.

Making Life Easier

In limited use, this type of sharing can help families and individuals manage their hectic days. It’s the same technology that underlies smart calendars that adjust reminders based on traffic. It’s a technology that can help you connect with your family and friends in a crowd.

Critical to its use is transparency and clear boundaries. Without it, trust breaks down quickly and is difficult to repair.