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GPS TRACKING: HAVE WE GONE TOO FAR?

11.01.20

As alluded to in blogs gone by I don’t have a lot of free time, so when I finally do dedicate an hour or so to watching a film or TV programme I want to ensure it’s of the highest quality. Black Mirror is one such programme. 

Strip away the drama and the deteriorating relationship between the protagonists, and you have a simple premise that would keep most parents up at night. How far would you go to keep your children safe?

The episode synopsis reads:

After nearly losing her daughter, a mother invests in a new technology that allows her to keep track of her.

As per usual, though, Brooker doesn’t do things by halves. Whilst normal folk may envisage a simple tracking device, such as the “Find My Friends” app on the iPhone, Brooker devised the “Arkangel” system – one which allows the mother to not only track her daughter’s whereabouts, but monitor her health and emotional state, and to censor (using pixilation) undesirable sights such as blood. Unsurprisingly, the daughter’s natural growth and mental state are compromised as a result. 

The Arkangel system clearly takes things too far. It’s one thing to enable Parental Controls on the family iPad, another thing entirely to actively distort a child’s vision. But the concept provoked an internal debate within me, nevertheless. We microchip our pets. Why would we not microchip a child? Where does the line between safety and surveillance blur?  

From humble beginnings on Channel 4, Charlies Brooker’s dark, dystopian and thought-provoking anthology series has evolved into an Emmy award-winning juggernaut for Netflix. Not bad for the guy we’re used to seeing angrily critiquing shows from his sofa in Screenwipe. Surely Barry Shitpeas and Philomena Cunk are a distant memory to Brooker now…

Many Black Mirror episodes centre around some form of moral or ethical conundrum. The series debut, The National Anthem, focused on whether the UK Prime Minister should engage in intimate relations with a pig to save the life of a Princess. Considering former PM David Cameron allegedly did so voluntarily is a hugely disturbing example of life imitating art… or should that be the other way around? Similarly downbeat episodes explore retributive justice for internet trolling (Hated in the Nation), paedophilia (Shut Up and Dance) and murder (White Bear). As I said, it’s dark stuff! 

And whilst killer drones and twisted TV gameshows are one thing (and no, I’m not talking about I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here!), we can thankfully turn off our television sets safe in the knowledge that Black Mirror resides in the realms of fiction. For now, anyway…

But Arkangel was different.

Smart watches, key fobs and tags are just a few examples of innovations capitalising on the capabilities of GPS and profiteering on the fear factor. Often marketed as suitable for pets, children and the elderly, there is a strong case to be made for their use from a practical perspective - finding your dog when it’s run away at the park or locating the whereabouts of a dementia sufferer who has gone for an impromptu wander. I highly doubt anyone would object to utilising technology in these cases. But where children are concerned, we enter a moral maze that we may never reach the centre of…

For starters, how effective could a tracker for children be? It’s easy enough for them to remove a watch, and my own experience of parenthood tells me that kids are constantly misplacing things! A tag attached to a bag or an item of clothing that is left on the school bus by mistake could easily cause severe emotional distress. If you’re looking for peace of mind, an item that can be lost, damaged or destroyed is unlikely to offer a solution, but for many it may still be preferable to the unknown. 

GPS tracking can conjure visions of spying - nosey parents, untrusting partners and so on. That’s where the line between casual monitoring and genuine safety concerns needs to be drawn. It’s the difference between wanting to know what your other half ate for lunch versus checking they aren’t caught up in that major motorway collision. 

Black Mirror’s Arkangel system is intrusive by design – not merely because it is physically implanted in the subject (the child), but by the levels of access afforded to the user (the parent). And it’s scarily not that far away from reflecting real life. Apps are expanding beyond simple GPS tracking to monitoring what your child is viewing, who they’re texting and what search terms they use. Which begs the question of the parent, why would you want to track such behaviour in the first place?

And what of security concerns? Parents accessing data regarding their own children may concern some, but everyone would agree that the prospect of strangers hacking those same systems is entirely abhorrent.  

 

In November 2019, Zero Day reported that a $35 smartwatch had exposed the location of more than 5000 children due to an insecure web backend. AV-TEST researchers revealed that anyone could query the smartwatch’s backend via a publicly accessible web API. 

According to the article:

There's an authentication token in place that's supposedly there to prevent unauthorized access, but attackers can supply any token they like, as the server never verifies its validity. An attacker can connect to this web API, cycle through all user IDs, and collect data on all kids and their parents… The data exposed via this Web API included the child's current geographical location, device type, and SIM card IMEI.

 

Arguably even more worrying is the second vulnerability identified through their tests:

The mobile app installed on parents' phones is also very insecure. An attacker can install it on their own device, change a user ID in the app's main configuration file, and have their smartphone paired with a child's smartwatch without ever having to enter a parent account email address or password.

Once attackers have paired their smartphone to a child's smartwatch, they can use the app's features to track the kid via a map, or even place calls and start voice chats with children.

Even worse, the attacker can change the mobile account's password and lock the parent out from the app while they give a child wrong instructions.

The consequences don’t bear thinking about. 

The trailer for Arkangel provocatively states “The key to good parenting is control” - establishing the notion that being able to “see” what your child sees, and censoring accordingly, is a positive thing.

 

In reality, accepting a lack of control is one of the biggest challenges that any parent faces – you can try your very best to protect them but that’s the limit. Illness can still strike. Accidents will still happen. As children mature, parents need to entrust them to make the right decisions regarding their own safety and private life. Adult life beckons, and I feel it is our duty to prepare children for real life, not shield them from it. 

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