Smart Technology Invaluable for Law Enforcement, but Shouldn’t Replace Conversations about Safety

No one has ever been fond of having their movements tracked by Big Brother – the eye in the sky – but after the alleged kidnapping incident that unfolded in downtown Boston and in Charlestown’s Bunker Hill development, many are re-thinking their position on such phone tracking apps.

That’s because the Find My Friends app used by the victim’s sister initially to pinpoint her in Bunker Hill was a watershed clue that helped police hone in on the location of the victim, Olivia Ambrose.

Already, young people in the Turn It Around program have been talking about how they might install the app on their phones for safety, and law enforcement experts say it is a new wave in personal safety for young children, young adults and the elderly.

National child safety experts, however, say it should not be considered a magic pill, but rather something to use to complement robust family conversations about “stranger danger” and personal safety.

The Suffolk County District Attorney’s Office said such technology is often used for stolen property, but said the current case is emblematic of what can happen when new technology is combined with good police work.

“It’s not uncommon for phone finder apps to be used in locating stolen property, but a case like this illustrates how the same technology – when used properly – can help law enforcement come to the aid of someone believed to be in danger,” said Renee Nadeau Algarin, spokeswoman for Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins. “When every minute matters, the ability to quickly locate a person can help ensure the best possible outcome. To that end, we’re grateful to Boston Police, Transit Police, BHA officials, and others for their hard work using a number of tools to bring the victim home.”

Former Boston Police Officer Dan Linskey, the managing director for Kroll Security and Risk Management in Boston, said such apps are a great tool for law enforcement and for families of young children and college-aged adults.

“I have it on my kids’ phone and I recommend people get it on their phone,” he said. “There are other apps that can track your movements around the globe. There are even panic buttons now that appear to be jewelry. You hit the panic button and it sends out an emergency message to two or three of your contacts, complete with your exact location…The app is very accurate too, because a cell tower can only locate someone within 1,200 to 1,500 feet, but the app in this case took police to about 100 feet from the victim.”

Linskey said it is also important for kids and young adults if they take ride-share services like Uber. Incidentally, like the DA, Linskey said those apps are helpful locating a phone if it has been stolen. Anyone who has the phone number in their contacts can search the location of the phone immediately.

For young adults and college-aged kids, he also said another wave of technology that can be shared amongst families is the Emergency Notification List app. Once downloaded, entire families can know about severe weather, active shooters, fires and any other disaster happening at a college or school.

“Parents do want to opt into that, too,” he said. “It’s part of the conversation in keeping kids safe.”

Speaking of conversations, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children is complementary of the app, but they also said they feel many parents are using it as a “magic pill” to replace conversations and teachings about personal safety.

“These are individual, family conversations about what everyone feels comfortable with and what they feel is appropriate,” said Eliza Harrell, director of Educational Outreach. “We know location service technology has tremendous benefits, but it comes with risks also. For what it’s worth, technology apps that allow targeting by location is useful for a lot of reasons, but you have to understand it isn’t the magic pill and it is constantly adapting and evolving. It should not replace conversations that families have about personal safety with kids and young adults. It has to be a personal calculation as a family, a person or an individual.”

One of the things that can backfire with such apps is it opens young people up to targeted marketing by retailers who use location to beam ads to their phones. For young adults, it can open up doors for a tech-savvy stalker to gain their location from afar.

Likewise, she said if someone is intent on stalking or doing harm to another person, many are schooled on all the new tracking apps. Just as someone can turn them on, said Harrell, these folks learn how to turn them off or muddle them. “These apps just cannot be seen as a replacement for having real conversations with kids,” she said. “They have to be another tool in the toolbox.”

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