Bill Brown became so worried about a 2-year-old granddaughter caught up in a custody fight that his wife told him to go out and buy a tracking device so they'd know her whereabouts.
"They have them for cars, they must have them for kids," Kathy Brown told him, but a trip to Toys 'R' Us proved fruitless - car tracking devices, after all, are attached to a 40-pound battery.
So Bill Brown and Danny Booker, a pair of semi-retired South Carolina businessmen who'd made their money in pre-paid long-distance cards, tapped their telephone industry background to develop tiny transponders that could be attached to at-risk kids.
The goal was to make them small enough to tuck in a fanny pack, school satchel or sneaker in case they were needed to track troubled children, including one of 350,000 minors the FBI says get taken each year by a family member, usually in custody situations.
Brown and Booker came up with a device the size of a tiny cell phone made by their firm, eWorldtrack Inc. of Anderson, S.C., and they're not alone.
Companies around the globe, including multinational giants such as Siemens AG, are banking on the brave new world of high-tech homing devices that combine satellite and mobile phone technology to track missing children or adults with medical problems.
Eventually, these transponders will get down to the size of a computer chip that can be tucked into a watchband or attached by skin patch. And one company - Applied Digital Solutions' Digital Angel of Palm Beach, Fla. - is working for the day a microchip transmitter can be implanted under the skin. A Digital Angel prototype recently was unveiled at a New York show.
These devices are made possible by the Clinton administration's 1996 decision to open the Pentagon's 24-satellite Global Positioning System satellite to the general public. Since then tracking technology has made civilian inroads with trucking companies, boaters and drivers of high-end cars in case of highway trouble or theft. Serious hikers also carry radio-size gadgets in case they get lost in the wilderness.
To comply with a Federal Communications Commission mandate, wireless device manufacturers will begin selling handsets next year that can transmit the caller's precise location, accurate to within feet. This is part of the FCC's "Enhanced 911" plan, set up so emergency crews can find a location even of a caller using a cell phone.
Futurists see these gizmos finally getting small enough to fit into a wallet or compass so no one - adult or child - is ever lost, although the idea of always being on someone else's radar screen raises privacy concerns among civil libertarians.
Says David Sobel of the Electronic Privacy Information Center: "This technology is going to happen, and we have to find ways to put people in control of how information about their location is collected and used."
For at-risk children and adults, privacy considerations are shaped by family and safety concerns, and on that score, technology now provides personalized tracking programs that minimize outside intrusion.
Those technological advances are evident at EWorldtrack: When eWebtrack started three years ago, it had a 24-hour tracking station to trace a missing child, but the Internet changed all that: Now a family member armed with the device number, a personal code and a PC can punch in the data online, activating the device and locating the missing child on a map to within 300 feet.
"With Internet numbers and codes it's personalized, so that Big Brother concerns are minimized," says eWebtrack's Brown. "Besides, parents are the best judge of a child's privacy and safety."
Nor are small tracking devices the only high-tech solution: The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children reports that its www.missingkids.com Internet site that averages 2.8 million hits a day and computer-generated imaging, e-mails and Web posters have replaced the old black-and-white artists' sketches, helping boost the recovery rate for missing youngsters from 66 percent in 1989 to 90 percent today.
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