So, you finally caved and bought your kid a phone. You bust open the box, go through a few prompts involving GPS and push notifications, and a wave of buyer’s remorse comes over you. You’re comforted knowing your kid will be able to call you or 9-1-1 — but there’s also the uneasy question of whether people who aren’t you or the police can trace your connected child.
Is there really such thing as an untraceable phone, and, if so, would you even want it? “No and no,” says Ben Levitan, a wireless cellular telecommunications expert who has worked for 3 of the industry’s major carriers, and participated in developing 4G technology. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be safe. Here, Levitan explains why your kid is safer with a smartphone, the impossibility of having an “untraceable” phone and what measures you can take to make the right call.
A Phone Will Never Be 100 Percent Untraceable
Tracking is a fundamental part of the way cell phone systems work, says Levitan. When someone calls you, the phone bounces to the network where you’re registered (your home) and then looks for your actual location. “The phone network always has to know where you are just to connect calls,” says Levitan. So having a phone = sharing your location.
That’s Not Necessarily A Bad Thing
All this tracking means Big Brother is a big threat, but it’s helpful in emergencies. When someone needs to be found, cell phone carriers can now track phones with pinpoint accuracy. Previously, Levitan says, 911 operators were unable to locate callers. But today? “Seventy-seven percent of people calling 911 are doing so from cell phones, and we can track the phone to a radius of 100 feet,” he says.
Don’t Switch Off Location Tracking
You might think, “I can just switch off their GPS.” But this does little to prevent your child from being untraceable — it simply delays contact in dire times. When the GPS is switched off, “police must call an emergency number at the cell phone company and the cell phone company must then remotely turn the GPS on,” says Levitan. “But that takes longer, and seconds really count when a life is on the line.”
It’s The Apps, Stupid
The major tracing danger doesn’t come from a phone’s built-in GPS but from the social media apps that access it. “People are constantly checking in and giving up their own location,” says Levitan. “Technology has made that easy. Facebook, if you allow it to access your GPS, will constantly advertise your location.” So make all that information private. The world doesn’t need to know your kid’s at Starbucks getting a cake pop. No one does.
The User Is Often The Weakest Link
There’s an expression in the wireless industry that when it comes to cyber security, the weakest link in the chain is always the one between the chair and the keyboard. Levitan says this is true of cell phone users, too — especially those who are 10 (which is the average age kids are getting cell phones these days, down from 12 in 2012). He says that nearly 95 percent of cases where children are located start because the child posted personal information. That means it’s up to you to drill it into their heads to not do that.
Giving Your Kid A Burner Isn’t The Best Idea
Perhaps you dug out a network-less, brick-sized Nokia and gave it to your kid. Now they have a phone that’s off the grid! Well, sure. But while that allows them to dial 911 (federal regulation makes sure that all cell phones can call out in an emergency, no matter how fossilized), it doesn’t give you access to them. Levitan says it’s not very practical since it can’t be used to call or receive calls from you. At best they can play a million games of “snake.”
So What Can You Do?
A kid-friendly cell phone can never be “untraceable,” but following these steps ensures a safer user experience:
- Start them off with a prepaid cell phone that doesn’t require a username. You can get them for as low as $10. Pay in cash and refrain from sending in the warranty or rebate form so they’ll remain anonymous. You may remember this tip from The Wire.
- Make sure you have all of their passwords and teach them not to share their number with anyone or post it online without your permission. Actually, don’t give them permission.
- Have your kids ask permission to download apps, and instruct them to select “no” to those that request linking to the cell phone’s GPS feature.
- Try programs like AT&T’s FamilyMap or other such programs that enable you to keep an eye on your kids’ whereabouts. “All the carriers have these services,” says Levitan. “They’re secure so long as you’re the only one with the password.”
- Tell your kids to stay off unknown Wi-Fi accounts.
- Emphasize that cell phones should be used strictly for talking and texting and that social media stuff should be done on a home computer you oversee.
Keep these tips in mind and your kids’ phones are in far less danger of being monitored. Well, by anyone other than the NSA … who are all great guy and totally shouldn’t bug our office.