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‘I keep a close watch on this child of mine’: a moral critique of other-tracking apps

Abstract

Smartphones and mobile applications are omnipresent in our lives. At the core of this article are ‘other-tracking apps’, i.e. mobile applications that make it possible, via location technology, to track others. These apps ensure that we are never unconnected from the network of ubiquitous information and, via that network, from others. In specific, focus lies on apps designed for parents to remotely track the whereabouts of their child(ren). This particular case can be considered as one example of broader reflection on what continuous technical connectivity means in moral terms. Other-tracking apps give new ground to moral queries related to information technologies. Even though there is little doubt that parents might implement these technologies with good intention to extend care and responsibility over a distance, our concern is that they mistake control for care. This article seeks to demonstrate that a critical stance towards other-tracking by parents is required, because these apps raise a number of concerns that should be recognized as they are implemented. A number of moral critiques are expressed and discussed. These apps have the potential to engender a situation of ‘over-proximity’. A framework is hence required that emphasizes maintaining the critical distance to respect the other’s heterogeneity, autonomy, and privacy.

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Notes

  1. Some of these apps also offer additional features, such as the web pages your child has visited, their call logs, text messages, and so forth.

  2. Literature on adolescence often distinguishes between early, middle, and late adolescence (see e.g. Zimmer-Gembeck and Collins 2003, p. 14). There is no clear-cut consensus on the age ranges of early adolescence: others demarcate the age range between 12 and 13 years (e.g. Fleming 2005) or between 13 and 15 years (e.g. Fabes et al. 1999).

  3. I am grateful to an anonymous referee for pointing this out.

  4. There is, of course, an important difference between knowing that you are being tracked versus being tracked or monitored in a secret, hidden way. For instance, users of ‘Life360’ have given their consent, whereas the app ‘1TopSpy’ (cf. supra) is secretly installed in the target phone.

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Acknowledgments

This research article is funded by the Flemish Research Foundation (FWO); the research project is entitled ‘Technical vs. Moral Proximity: The ‘Hidden Morality’ of ‘Continuous Connectivity’. The author is grateful to two anonymous reviewers for their valuable comments and suggestions.

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Correspondence to Katleen Gabriels.

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Gabriels, K. ‘I keep a close watch on this child of mine’: a moral critique of other-tracking apps. Ethics Inf Technol 18, 175–184 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10676-016-9405-1

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  • DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s10676-016-9405-1

Keywords

  • Mobile applications
  • Other-tracking apps
  • Quantified otherness
  • Parent–child relation
  • Moral concerns
  • Care
  • Control