In the wake of the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, every type of
child monitoring device is in demand
If your child could wear an implant – a microchip that could tell a
computer where he or she was at any time to within a few
metres – would you buy it? After the horrific snatch of
three-year-old Madeleine McCann from her bed in
Portugal, the answer from many parents seems to be
Professor Kevin Warwick, who developed the technology that made it
possible for the first child in Britain to volunteer to
be “chipped” in 2002 – after the murders of Holly Wells
and Jessica Chapman – has been bombarded with e-mails
over the past few days from parents desperate to keep
tabs on their children. As we talk, another e-mail drops
into his inbox from a mother of two young children who
says that she is deeply anxious about Madeleine’s
disappearance and wants to know more about the chip
It works, in theory, by sending a signal via a mobile-phone network
to a computer that can identify the child’s location on
an electronic map.
But there was the concern at the time over the ethics of tagging
our children’s bodies – some groups, including
Barnardo’s and Kidscape as well as sections of the
media, said that it was a neurotic overreaction that
would not benefit children in the long run. So Warwick,
Professor of Cybernetics at Reading University, did not
continue to develop the project nationally. “It caused
such a backlash that we had to step back,” he says.
“There were ethical concerns, and as a scientist you
have to listen.” But he adds that the point about
chipping is not that you would use it to track your
children 24 hours a day – only in a worst-case scenario.
“You would hope that it never gets used,” he says.
There are, however, many other child-tracking devices on the market
that will almost certainly have a surge in sales over
the next few weeks. They range from pay-as-you-go
tracking services that follow the SIM card in your
child’s mobile phone to electronic wristbands and
specially tagged pyjamas. Some companies have shied away
from such gadgets, fearing legal actions from parents
should they fail for any reason, but others believe that
the gadgets are destined to become part of normal
A Lancashire company, Connect Software, recently launched Toddler
Tag, a child-safety monitoring system in which a tag
smaller than a domino, which can take the form of a
badge or bracelet or may be sewn into clothing, is
allocated to each child.
The active Radio Frequency Identification tags work in conjunction
with a reader to monitor child movement, raising the
alarm when the child moves beyond a certain range. A
typical package costs between £500 and £1,000. Chris
Reid, the company’s commercial director, says that
several readers could be used by a parent to create a
“virtual ringfence” that triggers an alarm if the child
goes beyond the boundary or towards potential hotspots,
such as kitchens or stairways. The company has also
designed toddler “Smartwear” – bibs, T-shirts,
dungarees, hats and jackets – which comes ready-tagged
and, says Reid, may be useful not only to nurseries but
to give parents an “electronic pair of eyes” when taking
children to theme parks or on holiday.
Globalpoint Technologies, based in Newcastle, offers a “personal
companion” that uses a combination of mobile phone and
GPS technology to enable you to track your child by
computer to within a few metres (cost: £400-£500). It
picks up locator signals from satellites and sends them
as a text message or via the mobile-elephone network to
a website, and is based on technology developed by the
Ministry of Defence. It is currently used by companies
such as the Royal Mail to track mailbags.
Ian Rycroft, a company spokesman, says that it is lightweight,
about the size of a small Nokia phone and can be placed
unobtrusively in a shirt pocket, jacket or satchel or
worn as a necklace or on a wristband. He believes that
the market for the devices will expand significantly.
For older children there are established products such as Kids OK
mobile phone tracking, i-Kids and Teddy-fone – a phone
with a parent-activated child-monitor option that
enables parents to listen in to what is happening around
their child, an SOS button and a child-tracking service.
The drawback with all these products, of course, is that an
abductor could quickly dispose of mobile phones,
satchels, clothing or wristbands. Wherify, an American
company, offers a GPS locator watch that it claims is
lockable and tamper-proof and may act as a visible
deterrent (it works only in America). However, some
parents may be uncomfortable about a highly visible
device that an abductor would be desperate to remove.
The question that must also be asked is: should we be tagging and
monitoring our children to such an extent? Is there a
danger that we may lose perspective and fill our
children with suspicion and fear? Indeed, could we
become overreliant on technology and consequently more
blasé about basic supervision? Michelle Elliot, director
of the child protection charity Kidscape, says that she
opposes the idea of micro-chipimplants but understands
why many parents want to use phone-tracking devices or
She worries, however, that such devices might hamper children’s
development of a sense of independence. “It doesn’t
teach them what to do in a problem situation – eg, if
you are lost, go into a shop”, she says. “Having
children relying on a parent getting to them and finding
them doesn’t encourage independence.” Of implants, she
says: “We don’t know what the physiological effects –
and a child isn’t giving informed consent to what is a
minor operation on their body.”
But when children are abducted from bed and even from the bathtub
(as a girl in the North East was recently), a
nonremovable permanent chip is something that some
parents would welcome, regardless of the ethics.
“We have 11 million children in the UK,” says Elliot. “For the past
25 years between five and seven children have been
abducted and killed by a stranger each year, and that
has not changed.
“Are we becoming paranoid to the point where we give children the
message that life is so dangerous that they have to be
tagged? There is no guarantee of your child’s safety.
But the chances [of something like this happening] are
so remote that you have to think about the message
you’re giving them.”
But Professor Warwick says that if there was sufficient demand from
the public and the initiative was backed by child-safety
groups, it would not be difficult to make chip implants
– about an inch long – available nationally in a
relatively short period of time.
He says that further work may be needed to determine how best to
recharge the device but, because it would be in “sleep
mode”, it would need only very low power. “It might be
that once a year the child has to hold his arm up to a
charger,” he says.
He can see no serious health implications: the chip would housed be
in a silicone capsule and it would be little different
from having a cochlear implant.
And what of Danielle Duval, who, five years ago, at the age of 11,
volunteered – amid huge media coverage and with the
consent of her parents – to become the first implant
At the family home in Reading, Danielle’s mother Wendy said that
she did not want to comment on the issue in relation to
Madeleine McCann. Her daughter had eventually backed out
of the scheme because of intense media interest and had
never had the implant fitted.