WOULD AN IMPLANTED CHIP HELP TO KEEP MY CHILD SAFE?
In the wake of the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, every type of child monitoring device is in demand
May 15, 2007
If your child could wear an implant
– a microchip that could tell a computer where he or she was at any time to within a few metres – would you buy
it? After the horrific snatch of three-year-old Madeleine McCann from her bed in Portugal, the answer from many parents
seems to be “yes”.
Professor Kevin Warwick, who
developed the technology that made it possible for the first child in Britain
to volunteer to be “chipped” in 2002 – after the murders of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman – has
been bombarded with e-mails over the past few days from parents desperate to keep tabs on their children. As we talk, another
e-mail drops into his inbox from a mother of two young children who says that she is deeply anxious about Madeleine’s
disappearance and wants to know more about the chip technology.
It works, in theory, by sending
a signal via a mobile-phone network to a computer that can identify the child’s location on an electronic map.
But there was the concern at
the time over the ethics of tagging our children’s bodies – some groups, including Barnardo’s and Kidscape
as well as sections of the media, said that it was a neurotic overreaction that would not benefit children in the long run.
So Warwick, Professor of Cybernetics at Reading University, did not continue to develop the project nationally. “It caused such
a backlash that we had to step back,” he says. “There were ethical concerns, and as a scientist you have to listen.”
But he adds that the point about chipping is not that you would use it to track your children 24 hours a day – only
in a worst-case scenario. “You would hope that it never gets used,” he says.
There are, however, many other
child-tracking devices on the market that will almost certainly have a surge in sales over the next few weeks. They range
from pay-as-you-go tracking services that follow the SIM card in your child’s mobile phone to electronic wristbands
and specially tagged pyjamas. Some companies have shied away from such gadgets, fearing legal actions from parents should
they fail for any reason, but others believe that the gadgets are destined to become part of normal parenting.
A Lancashire company, Connect
Software, recently launched Toddler Tag, a child-safety monitoring system in which a tag smaller than a domino, which can
take the form of a badge or bracelet or may be sewn into clothing, is allocated to each child.
The active Radio Frequency Identification
tags work in conjunction with a reader to monitor child movement, raising the alarm when the child moves beyond a certain
range. A typical package costs between £500 and £1,000. Chris Reid, the company’s commercial director, says that several
readers could be used by a parent to create a “virtual ringfence” that triggers an alarm if the child goes beyond
the boundary or towards potential hotspots, such as kitchens or stairways. The company has also designed toddler “Smartwear”
– bibs, T-shirts, dungarees, hats and jackets – which comes ready-tagged and, says Reid, may be useful not only
to nurseries but to give parents an “electronic pair of eyes” when taking children to theme parks or on holiday.
Globalpoint Technologies, based
in Newcastle, offers a “personal companion” that uses a combination of mobile phone and GPS technology to enable
you to track your child by computer to within a few metres (cost: £400-£500). It picks up locator signals from satellites
and sends them as a text message or via the mobile-elephone network to a website, and is based on technology developed by
the Ministry of Defence. It is currently used by companies such as the Royal Mail to track mailbags.
Ian Rycroft, a company spokesman,
says that it is lightweight, about the size of a small Nokia phone and can be placed unobtrusively in a shirt pocket, jacket
or satchel or worn as a necklace or on a wristband. He believes that the market for the devices will expand significantly.
For older children there are
established products such as Kids OK mobile phone tracking, i-Kids and Teddy-fone – a phone with a parent-activated
child-monitor option that enables parents to listen in to what is happening around their child, an SOS button and a child-tracking
The drawback with all these products,
of course, is that an abductor could quickly dispose of mobile phones, satchels, clothing or wristbands. Wherify, an American
company, offers a GPS locator watch that it claims is lockable and tamper-proof and may act as a visible deterrent (it works
only in America). However, some parents
may be uncomfortable about a highly visible device that an abductor would be desperate to remove.
The question that must also be
asked is: should we be tagging and monitoring our children to such an extent? Is there a danger that we may lose perspective
and fill our children with suspicion and fear? Indeed, could we become overreliant on technology and consequently more blasé
about basic supervision? Michelle Elliot, director of the child protection charity Kidscape, says that she opposes the idea
of micro-chipimplants but understands why many parents want to use phone-tracking devices or wristbands.
She worries, however, that such
devices might hamper children’s development of a sense of independence. “It doesn’t teach them what to do
in a problem situation – eg, if you are lost, go into a shop”, she says. “Having children relying on a parent
getting to them and finding them doesn’t encourage independence.” Of implants, she says: “We don’t
know what the physiological effects – and a child isn’t giving informed consent to what is a minor operation on
But when children are abducted
from bed and even from the bathtub (as a girl in the North East was recently), a nonremovable permanent chip is something
that some parents would welcome, regardless of the ethics.
“We have 11 million children
in the UK,” says Elliot. “For
the past 25 years between five and seven children have been abducted and killed by a stranger each year, and that has not
“Are we becoming paranoid
to the point where we give children the message that life is so dangerous that they have to be tagged? There is no guarantee
of your child’s safety. But the chances [of something like this happening] are so remote that you have to think about
the message you’re giving them.”
But Professor Warwick says that
if there was sufficient demand from the public and the initiative was backed by child-safety groups, it would not be difficult
to make chip implants – about an inch long – available nationally in a relatively short period of time.
He says that further work may
be needed to determine how best to recharge the device but, because it would be in “sleep mode”, it would need
only very low power. “It might be that once a year the child has to hold his arm up to a charger,” he says.
He can see no serious health
implications: the chip would housed be in a silicone capsule and it would be little different from having a cochlear implant.
And what of Danielle Duval, who,
five years ago, at the age of 11, volunteered – amid huge media coverage and with the consent of her parents –
to become the first implant “guinea pig”?
At the family home in Reading, Danielle’s mother Wendy said that she did not want to
comment on the issue in relation to Madeleine McCann. Her daughter had eventually backed out of the scheme because of intense
media interest and had never had the implant fitted.