Do High-Tech Child Monitors Work?

To say that the search for 4-year-old Madeleine McCann, who disappeared from a Portuguese resort on May 3 while on vacation with her British parents, has attracted attention would be an understatement. Celebrities Richard Branson and J. K. Rowling offered reward money. The pope blessed the girl's photograph. And volunteers marked 50 days since her disappearance on June 22 by releasing balloons in 50 countries.

This and other recent cases have stimulated the market for child-monitoring gadgets. Cybernetics professor Kevin Warwick of Reading University in Britain has invented a microchip that can be implanted under a child's skin and transmits its location via satellite or mobile-phone network. Since Madeleine's disappearance, he's been getting more than 100 e-mails a day from concerned parents.

Suppliers say that sales took a sharp upturn in recent months (though they declined to give numbers). Connect Software, a firm in Blackburn, England, makes electronic wristbands and domino-size badges that can be sewn into a child's clothing and sound an alarm when the child leaves a designated safe area. Globalpoint Technologies of Northumberland, England, sells a version of a device first used to track British Royal Mail's distribution bags that can be tucked into a coat pocket or backpack. California-based Wherify now makes a mobile phone that uses the Global Positioning System to provide real-time location information to guardians.

Parents may love all the new technology, but child-protection organizations have taken a dim view of it. Monitoring devices create a false sense of safety, they maintain—a kidnapper could remove one from a child long before a parent thinks to call the authorities. And abductions by strangers are still extremely rare, so some say the gadgets represent a form of overkill, serving mainly to make kids fearful. "It's a sledgehammer to crack a nut," says Michele Elliot, director of Kidscape, a U.K. child-protection agency.

Will the backlash discourage innovation? It already has, says Warwick. Reading University will not support the next stage of his research because of ethics concerns voiced by Britain's National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in 2002. "I'm not trying to take advantage," says Warwick. "I'm trying to respond to many, many parents that are very, very worried." And willing to take extreme measures against risks that are tiny, but real.