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Child Location Services

Volume 464: debated on Tuesday 9 October 2007

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Taylor, for the first time in an Adjournment debate.

This is the third time that I have raised in Parliament the need for the regulation and licensing of the burgeoning new industry in electronic location services, which are used particularly to locate children. In introducing this debate, I thank in particular John Carr—I thank him for my previous interventions as well—who is the secretary of the Children’s Charities’ Coalition for Internet Safety. This time, I hope that the Minister can assure me that the matter will be discussed seriously in the Department and followed up.

To recap on previous discussions on the matter, the internet kicked around for the best part of 20 years without anyone taking any real notice of it. In the beginning, it was principally the plaything of a small number of boffins working mainly in defence research establishments, essentially swapping test results with one another. Nobody really cared about this obscure technological development. How wrong we were. It was only when the internet started to penetrate the mass consumer market that a whole raft of social and political issues started to emerge, catching Governments and the policy-making community on the hop.

Today, we seem to be engaged in a seemingly endless game of technological and regulatory catch-up. We could now be at one of those historic moments with mobile phones and, above all, satellite-based technologies, which are facilitating the steady emergence of an array of cheap and easy-to-use surveillance tools that soon will enable every Tom, Dick and Harriet to become their own 007—for the first time in history, we all have it in our powers to be James Bond, or to be like the police and track another person 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. The mass consumer market is being targeted with cheap and easy-to-use tracking devices. We have not yet got a hold of the industry.

Just before I walked into the Chamber, about half an hour ago, I was sent an e-mail by Action on Rights for Children telling me about another new development in which the school uniforms manufacturer, Trutex, has mooted the idea of embedding global positioning systems in school uniforms. ARCH did not take that seriously. It thought that it was a silly season story, but it contacted Trutex’s public relations company only to find out that it was true. Trutex is actively seeking ways in which to take that forward. At the moment, there is apparently no way for any Government Department to ask whether there are any safety or other issues that ought to be pursued with that company.

I first raised this matter at a time when I had seen a number of cases of journalists being able to track people without their knowledge. Also at the time I had just seen, on CNN, a piece about the CeBIT hi-tech trade fair in Hanover. One exhibiter said that he was amazed that more parents had not yet invested in his child location product. “Just pop it in your kid’s backpack and get peace of mind,” as he said. But the problem is: what if someone else pops that tracker into a kid’s backpack in order to trace them? That exhibiter on that television programme advertising his wares did not say whether he checked whether his product was sold to parents or paedophiles. Those surveillance technologies that are getting going have indeed made their first appearance in the child protection market. That is where we need to be particularly concerned, although I think that there is a general issue about surveillance and such products coming forward without any real controls.

I made a speech during the ten-minute Bill that I introduced last year that called for a licensing regime. I have a copy of that Bill, which the Minister can use if he so wishes. It sought to establish

“a licensing regime for the sale or promotion of any service providing data on the location of children where these data have been derived from any mobile telephone network, satellite system or other electronic or communications medium.”

At the time, I referred particularly to the example of the Teddyfone—it is not hard to guess what it looks like. It is a very attractive little phone in nice blue and white livery that the hungry eyes of a little child would jump on. They would be only too pleased to take it away with them. Indeed, that company is targeting that very young market. The Teddyfone would fit easily into tiny hands, pockets or backpacks.

As I said, however, who checks to whom that product has been sold? Obviously, the phone does what any phone does. It lets someone talk to whoever is carrying it at the time. It also restricts who someone can call from it. However, just by sending a text message, it automatically and silently converts the phone into a listening device. When a colleague of mine contacted Teddyfone, it confirmed that the listening device was turned on without any audible warning. It said, “Well, if the child knew that you were listening, it would defeat the point of it.”

One wonders not just about child safety issues. One might think that people know where that tracker is, but how do they know whether it is with their child, and how do they know that their child has not been given a tracker by somebody wanting to track them without a legitimate reason? Furthermore, is it good to be able to listen into a child’s conversations without them knowing? I am not sure that that necessarily is the best way in which to move forward with social relationships and to ensure that parents’ relationships with their children are the best that they could be. Do parents want their children to carry a phone into which a teacher or somebody else could listen?

Of course, however, the Teddyfone also turns into a tracking device and provides information on the physical whereabouts of the person carrying that phone. Obviously, that can bring wonderful peace of mind. A parent can feel safe because their child is carrying such a device. However, what peace of mind can it give if that service remains unregulated and open to misuse by strangers who might be very clever at grooming a child? We are sleepwalking into a surveillance society without having made sure that it is properly regulated.

Whenever a mobile phone is switched on, it is transmitting and receiving signals from individual, geographically-specific radio cells on the owner’s mobile phone network. Therefore, the network knows where the owner is, possibly to within a matter of metres. If the phone is turned off, the operator will know where they were at the last connected moment. That has been very valuable. On the production of a warrant, that location information has always been available to the police who increasingly use it when investigating all kinds of crimes.

If I fell down a ravine and had one of those devices, I would be only too pleased that an ambulance could track me. If I was going up a mountain, I might well want one so that a mountain rescue team could find me if I got lost. They have many valuable uses. However, they are potentially very dangerous as well. At the moment, the UK’s mobile phone networks have put that location information on sale to the public, and so far about 30 companies, of which Teddyfone is one, are packaging and selling it. Many of them are doing that in the name of child safety. If a person has a Teddyfone, without going to the trouble of talking to their child, they can go to a website and see where they are, or they can ask for a map to be sent to their mobile phone showing the same information. As I said, they can also decide whether to listen in to their conversations.

Devices are coming on to the market that do not depend on mobile phone networks. We have gone beyond a situation involving just mobile phones and on to global positioning system technologies, with which we are familiar in relation to satellite navigation and the ability to find a person’s car. However, that tells a person where they are; it does not tell other people where they are. If they want road location information or to find out about traffic, they can plug it in and use it. That is very useful. At the moment, however, the combination of those two technologies—mobile phone networks and satellites—is much more potent than either technology used alone. That is likely to be the model for the future.

In theory, the child being tracked, if they have one of those tracking machines, has to give consent. However, it is a little absurd to think of a four-year-old giving their consent—and four-year-olds are part of Teddyfone’s target market. How do we ensure that those systems are controlled, because clearly the four-year-old cannot agree to be tracked?

This is becoming very widespread. John Carr went into a company called Spymaster which sells equipment that spies on people. It is based off London’s Oxford street. When he asked the sales assistant if there were any problems, for example, in buying an electric plug or a seemingly-normal fountain pen that doubled as a microphone or transmitter, she said, “No, because in the UK there is not a basic law of privacy”. Of course, if someone heard anything from using a hidden microphone, it could not be produced as evidence in a court of law, but most of its customers are not interested in going to court. They are simply trying to collect intelligence.

From Spymaster’s website, it is obvious who would want to use its products: perhaps overseas Governments or the super-rich. But it could just as easily be private investigators, who I am sure use such equipment. The danger of that equipment spreading far and wide without any proper regulation is clear. I shall focus on children, because that is our primary area of concern. However, I wanted to make the point that we now have a society in which those products are on the market and widely available to everybody.

I shall return to the issue of children’s location products. The Home Office, the police and children’s charities negotiated with the UK’s six largest networks, and they agreed a voluntary code of practice governing the deployment of child location services and location services generally. The code existed when my ten-minute Bill was debated, so one may ask why I felt that we still needed regulation when a voluntary code was there to be used. At that time, there had been the examples of a Guardian journalist, who had managed to track his girlfriend without her knowing—I hope it did not damage their relationship—and a Mail on Sunday journalist, who had tracked various people, including a 14-year-old girl. I have her account with me, although I am not sure whether it ever appeared in the paper. There was another example, too.

I met representatives of some of the mobile phone companies last week, and they told me that they have ironed out some of those glitches and that some of the ways in which those incidents occurred have been brought under control. They have a code of practice, whereby, for example, the system cannot be turned on until the person who has the device on them has registered a response to a call asking whether they are happy for that to happen. That does not apply very well if the device is on a four-year-old child. In one of those examples of tracking, the journalist had himself responded to the call before his girlfriend got the phone back. The mobile phone companies tell me that they have sorted that issue out and that there is now a time lag before the response can be made. Having spoken to them, I know that they take their responsibilities seriously. The companies sell their services and allow people with their products to use their mobile phone network to locate people, but if the companies see that something is going wrong, they have the power to switch the service off. There is a control mechanism, but they can control it only by trying to issue guidelines to people who buy the products, or by undertaking mystery shopping.

The jury is still out on whether the voluntary code for using the mobile phone network will stand the test of time, but one of my reasons for pursuing the issue is that what I predicted when I introduced my ten-minute Bill last year has come to pass: tracking devices are becoming available through GPS systems and other technologies. When I read about the launch of a product called Buddy, I thought that it was based solely on GPS, but I understand from the company behind it that it uses a mix of GPS and mobile phone technology. That is because a mobile phone network will not work if the user is underground; they need the mix of the two technologies to make the product work effectively.

Systems that use solely GPS technology are being sold, however, and they fall outside the voluntary code that governs mobile phone networks. In any case, it is only a voluntary code, and it is hard to see how we can ensure that there is any control over the use of that technology and its potential dangers without licensing or regulating those who sell the product.

I have met the managing director of Buddy. The company seeks to use its system to track pets, which might be popular; to track people’s parents who suffer from dementia and tend to wander off; and to use it with autistic children in particular. It has been working with the National Autistic Society. The company is aware of the potential dangers, and it seeks voluntarily to follow the same sort of code as that which the mobile phone networks have set down. Although we did not agree about the exact form of any safeguards, the managing director said that safeguards are needed.

I do not want to introduce a difficult regulatory regime with a huge licensing bureaucracy that is going to be a problem for people, but we need safeguards and a licensing scheme for those who sell such products. That area must be looked at seriously. The people who are responsible within the industry clearly believe in some form of regulation. The mobile phone companies have their voluntary code, the managing director of Buddy agrees that some safeguards are needed and other people wrote to me after my ten-minute Bill debate last year.

I have a letter from an organisation called MindMe. It does not undertake child location services; it supplies industry and individuals with a portable security device for lone workers. Understandably, if one operates in an area by oneself, for example as a security guard for a company, it is helpful to have one of those devices in case one gets into trouble. MindMe wrote to me, saying:

“We are very interested in your proposals because we would welcome a licensing body for all forms of location services to cover both adults and children.”

It went on to set out its concerns about its industry. I had similar responses from other organisations in the industry, so the idea does not provoke shock and horror among those in the industry, because they see the potential dangers.

If the system works, that is fine; if the voluntary code works, that is fine; if a company such as Buddy acts responsibly, as it seems to be doing from my discussions with its managing director, that is also fine. What happens, however, if something goes wrong? With a burgeoning industry, that scenario is increasingly likely, and Departments must get a grip on the issue.

After I raised the issue in my ten-minute Bill, I tabled an amendment to the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Bill. I subsequently withdrew it, but it would have introduced some safeguards to the legislation. I have not pursued the issue vigorously with Departments, but I cannot just sit back and let it happen any more. Appeals to the Home Office and the Department of Trade and Industry have drawn a blank in the past, and one letter in particular to those Departments did not elicit a very forthcoming reply.

The Department of Trade and Industry, which is now—really—the Minister’s predecessor Department, provided financial assistance to a company that was developing a child tracking product. When the DTI was asked whether it had considered the possible criminal or other misuses of such technology, it said in effect that such questions were none of its business. What is more, it even gave the firm in question a prize for innovation. I appeal to the new Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform not only to analyse child location services and tracking services, but to realise that it has a responsibility in that area. It must talk to children’s charities and to the Home Office. They take a serious and deep interest in the ways in which technology can be used to endanger people.

When the DTI was asked whether it thought it should have consulted child protection specialists before agreeing to fund the development of a child detection product, the DTI officials just said no, so I ask the Minister to make his colleagues and officials aware that that attitude must change. I urge him to raise in the Department the issues that I put forward in my Bill, and to enter into discussions about the safeguards that might be introduced—preferably a licensing system, as I have put forward, although there may be other ways. The Department should take serious account of the safety of any product that comes before it—in any area.

We are sleepwalking into a situation in which anybody can come under surveillance. One example that worries me is somebody who is in a refuge because they fear violence from a partner. Commonly, those partners seek to find out where the refuge is, and it usually has a PO box number. If that partner wishes to chase them, what could be simpler than to put a tracking device in a phone, post it to the PO box number, and—subject to there not being a strike at the time—find out when it gets there where the machine, and therefore their partner, is? I discussed that issue with the managing director of Buddy yesterday, and she came up with some ideas about how to deal with that problem.

I hesitate to call for a great debate about the surveillance industry, but we cannot let the issue get out of hand. We have seen the dangers of other technologies only after they have been introduced: for example, the internet and the mushrooming number of child abuse images; video nasties and their effect on people—a subject that is being debated in the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill currently before Parliament; and the Jane Longwith case. As with all such areas of technology, we need to get a grip on it before it has a grip on us and before we find that it has appalling and horrifying consequences for our society. Those consequences may be few and far between but, just as we talk about how MySpace and all those other technologies can be used indiscriminately to track children and provide information leading to someone’s house being burgled, we need to get a grip on the technology before it creates such problems.

It is important that we consider a licensing regime and safeguards on the burgeoning industry, so that we can ensure that our children, in particular, are kept safe and that there are some safeguards and licensing, as I would like to see, on the industry in total. I am particularly concerned today about the safety of our children and ensuring that devices are properly used and regulated so that they meet the reasons for which people seek to buy them and are not put to uses that will bring harm and danger to our children. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will give me a positive response about taking forward the issue.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber) for raising the issue and for the opportunity to debate child location-based services. She is absolutely right that child safety is a critical issue for the country, and she made a point of both general and specific relevance. I shall come to the specifics shortly, but the general question raised is, when technological advances can be used for good purposes or ill, how should the Government respond?

We may consider, for example, electricity, which is an essential good of modern life. We could not imagine modern life without it, yet a badly wired house can be a danger to life. My hon. Friend mentioned the internet, which is certainly one of the most amazing inventions of my lifetime. It has opened up a vast, unimaginable array of information to people and enables families and friends to stay in touch, if they live in different countries, far more easily than before. Yet, as she said, through social networking sites and so on, which are mostly beneficial, it can also be used in a manner that could place people in danger or, as we have seen, to help promote political extremism. Each technological advance opens up new opportunities and horizons but can also pose new risks.

I turn to some of the specifics. My hon. Friend mentioned surveillance, which is a topic of considerable political interest. Is more surveillance good or not? Speaking from my own constituency experience, the demand from my constituents is often for more surveillance of their streets—more cameras, more of a presence of the state by way of the police force and more control over what happens on their streets. Yet some people, of course, have concerns about that.

Child location services, enabled by the kind of technologies that my hon. Friend mentioned, can offer an important comfort to parents who want to know where their children are, conscious, as parents are, that their children are growing up in a world of probably far greater opportunities than ever before, but also of risks that we did not have to worry about in the past. She rightly said that the issues she raised were of relevance not just to child safety, although that is her principal concern today, but in cases of domestic violence, for example. She is right that the victims of domestic violence quite rightly want to keep their locations secret from abusive former partners.

Perhaps it would be helpful if I set out the regulations that are in place, because the area is not unregulated. The technology is new and developing, and in setting out the position I am not saying that we could never go further. However, I hope that my hon. Friend will understand that I will not be promising her today more regulation in the field. At the moment, the Privacy and Electronic Communications (EU Directive) Regulations 2003 apply a number of privacy safeguards to services based on traffic and location data, including a requirement of informed consent from subscribers to, or users of, the services involved. For services involving children, consent must be given by a child’s parents or guardian.

The code to which my hon. Friend referred calls for checks to confirm the identity of those applying. I could go into detail, but given the time perhaps it will suffice if I say that that involves the sending of e-mails, the supplying of PIN numbers, PIN numbers being returned and so on. Subscribers or users must be able at any time to withdraw their consent. That can be done temporarily in relation to each connection to the network, or on a permanent basis. The processing of personal data is regulated by the Data Protection Act 1998.

Enforcement lies with the Information Commissioner’s Office, which to date has not needed to take enforcement action against any company operating a location-based service. It has rightly had considerable input into location-based services, out of a general concern about surveillance conducted through mobile phone technology. It works closely with the industry and with child safety experts on an ongoing basis.

As far as the Government are concerned, the legislation is supplemented by a self-regulatory framework developed by the Home Office in partnership with the industry. In 2004, the voluntary code of practice called the “Code of Practice for the use of passive location services in the UK” was developed by a working group comprising UK location service providers, five mobile phone network operators and children’s charities.

Does the Minister accept, first, that that code is voluntary, and secondly that it was developed with those using mobile phone technology, not new technology? As I understand it, there are no particular legal controls requiring someone selling a product, for example, to check up on who is being tracked and how.

My hon. Friend is right that the code is voluntary and applies to mobile phone technology. I shall come to the issue of global positioning systems in a moment.

The code is subject to regular review so that it remains relevant to the needs of consumers and the industry and is compliant with applicable law. All location service providers using location data supplied by mobile network operators in the UK should, as a minimum, observe that code of practice. It states that child location services should not be marketed in any way that exploits parents’ concern or fear that their children may become victims of crime, and that services should take account of the fact that someone knowing where their child’s phone is does not necessarily tell them where their child is. It is taken seriously because of the implications for child safety.

My hon. Friend asked about GPS technology. It is a valid question, and we understand the concerns expressed that it might be possible to overcome some of the security and privacy protections laid down in legislation and in the code. The Home Office has set up a location-based services group consisting of the representatives whom I have mentioned. It was established to oversee and monitor the working of the code, and I am happy to tell her today that that group is examining developments in relation to GPS and the potential for misuse arising from it.

Will the Minister undertake to meet me and people from the children’s charities, or ask one of his colleagues to do so, to discuss the gaps that we see? Will he also undertake to ensure that, where child safety issues fall within the purview of his Department, rather than the Home Office, they are taken into account and that the appropriate charities are consulted before decisions are taken that simply relate to an industrial interest?

I am certainly happy to say that I or my officials will meet my hon. Friend when we consider such issues. We are not convinced that a system of licensing is necessarily the way forward, but we have certainly heard what she has said and I am sure that my officials will take seriously the points that she has made today.