Costa: Why I Use a GPS Cell Phone to Spy on My Kid

Good parenting, like good government, is all about transparency.

Recently, I had to lay down the law for my 13-year-old stepson, Emmet, and I tried to be as clear and as open as possible.

He wanted to hang out with some friends after school, before attending a dance, and I needed him to understand where he could and could not go.

"You can play football at the field and then go directly to the dance," I said.

"Okay," he replied, staring at the TV in his usual distracted, uninterested way.

Then I dropped the bomb. "And I'm going to use the GPS chip in your cell phone to check up on you."

That got his attention.

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In doing this, I'm jeopardizing a long history of left-leaning inclinations, a few friendships with Electronic Freedom Foundation staffers, and possibly my American Civil Liberties Union membership.

But I take some solace in knowing that the ACLU will gain one rabid supporter in return (Emmet is suddenly very political).

And I know that this is something I have to do.

Emmet is like most teenagers. His taste for adventure occasionally overwhelms his common sense. He needs supervision, and tracking his cell phone can help with that.

It's no substitute for trust, but safety comes first.

GPS (or the like) became mandatory on cell phones when the Federal Communications Commission rolled out its Wireless 911 regulations.

The idea was to ensure that when you called 911 from a mobile phone, dispatchers would know exactly where you were — just as they do when you call from a landline.

Of course, once those GPS receivers were in place, the street found its own use for them.

Services such as Sprint's Family Locator are just the beginning. Get ready for GPS services that alert you to nearby retail merchants, sending you coupons and other enticements.

And, look, here comes location-based social networking. Loopt, a social-networking service that runs exclusively on the Boost Mobile network, is already using GPS.

You have to opt in, but once you do, your friends always know where you are. Helio offers a similar service called Buddy Beacon.

According to David H. Williams, publisher of LBS, location-based services (LBS) represent a $750 million market — and that market will grow by 75 to 100 percent over the next two years.

In short, location-based services will continue to transform our world, long after the Web 2.0 buzz fades away.

I don't have a problem with this. As far as I'm concerned, locating your kids is a killer app.

I have Emmet's best interests at heart. I recognize that GPS is an extreme measure, but I think the situation warrants it.

I do, however, have a big problem when these searches are, shall we say, warrantless.

In 2005, federal documents revealed that our government was routinely using GPS to trace individuals without getting a warrant.

The issue has made it into the courts, and though most have ruled a warrant is indeed necessary, some judges continue to give the FBI agents and federal prosecutors the power to track us indiscriminately. And those are just the searches we know about.

In the current political environment, I think it's safe to assume that if the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, the National Security Agency and even the Food and Drug Administration really want to track us, they'll track us. (Given its budget these days, the Environmental Protection Agency might have trouble.)

My solution is a simple one. It's called the Off switch — the antidote to any new technology that threatens our life, liberty or pursuit of happiness.

I don't mind that my phone has a GPS transmitter, but I need the power to turn it off.

Many GPS-equipped phones offer two settings, "911-only" and "location-on," so we do have some control over the process, and it would be nice to have more.

Of course, we could also use a formal law that expressly forbids GPS tracking without a warrant, but these days, I have more faith in engineers than in Congress.

I want the power to spy on my kid. But I don't want anyone else doing it. And I don't want anyone tracking me, either. Not my wireless carrier. And not my government.

As a father, I have to look over Emmet's shoulder, but I don't need Big Brother looking over mine.