Q: Does Safety Supersede Civil Liberty?

 Yesterday I read a blog  posting about a recent meeting re Autism and in particular around a group’s debate of using tracking devices. An overview of the situation discussed:

 “An incredibly brave Mom, spoke so eloquently about her child’s death due to wandering. Shelia spoke for so many of us when she described how quickly an ASD child can disappear. Her son, like mine, had no awareness of danger and almost no safety instincts. To make matters worse, nonverbal ASD children are highly impulsive and cannot respond when searchers are calling their names.  urged the committee to make safety an IACC priority — particularly by providing interested families with potential life saving track devices and to aid in the support and training of first responders, teachers and other community service providers.”

A couple of notes

  • GPS tracking devices are readily available
  • This request is for the government to pay for the tracking devices
  • This could apply to adults as well as children


First, let’s talk about children. A parent can, today,  purchase a GPS tracking device (a watch, an amulet, etc) to be worn by their child. Why? According to the US Department of Justice, 797,500 children (<18) were reported missing in a one year period of time, resulting in an average of 2,185 children reported missing every day! Should you get one of these devices? Perhaps. If you want one, it is a viable purchase. These devices are reasonably affordable. If you can afford an Xbox, Wii, Playstation, iPhone or other technological sensation you can afford one of these devices with the monthly payment plan. I’ve read that one of the best on the market is Amber Alerts. It includes an emergency button for the child to use (works also if there is a PA with the child and they need emergency help). It also includes online tracking ~$180 for he product and $20/month for the tracking service. With GPS devices, you can know where your child goes after school. You can know how fast they were driving in the car. It is a safety device as well as a feedback mechanism. As a parent, you have a right to know where your children are.

Now let’s switch gears. How bout when your children are adults? Should I get a GPS tracker for my brother, David? David is 48 years old. I’ve already introduced you to David. David has many wonderful qualities but an appreciation of danger is not one of them. He communicates in different ways than most of us and if you call out to him, he will not call back. Is it possible for him to walk into traffic? Yes. Will a tracker stop him from taking that step? No. David relies on staff support for much of his daily living. They should prevent him from walking into traffic (right?). Well, let’s talk about the staff. there is the risk of neglect. How long did he sit in one place in the house? Or a car? Is he being driven all over the place? Or no place? Could a GPS could provide all kinds of information/feedback? Yes. So, should I get a GPS tracker for my brother? I mean, the technology is there. Not only GPS but once you go there –technology providing feedback — you have to also consider that remote monitoring devices (video cameras, web access) are also really cheap now too. These cameras can even “launch” when they see motion detected. I could watch David at home and also use the GPS tracker to ‘watch’ him out of the house. Since all of this is available, if I don’t collect all the available information am I delinquent on my oversight responsibilities? What about David’s provider? Should they be tracking him their staff?

These issues are pertinent. They apply not only to David but also to those of you with elderly parents perhaps suffering dementia. Remote monitoring? Remote tracking? They could really ease your mind. I’ve really thought hard about this and then I realized the real question at the heart of this is:

Does the fact that a person has intellectual and/or  physical disabilities, mean that we can deprive him of his civil liberties in the name of “safety”?

Let’s go to the Constitution. The Fourth Amendment explicitly gives a constitutional right to privacy:

“The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

Then there’s the Fourteenth Amendment:

“Section 1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

Should we amend the amendments and add a clause that says “except when we know better, or except when the person has intellectual or developmental or physical disabilities?”

In the end, I acknowledge that we all have individual circumstances and I do not judge those who do what they feel that we must do. Only YOU can know the personal situation you are operating within. Even still, I would recommend that there are some questions to ask before you go there:

  • Where will you draw the line? And where should the government draw the line. They may be two different things.
  • Are we prepared to go back to the days of targeting individuals with disabilities and saying they do not deserve the same civil rights? This is how we justified institutionalization: for their safety. Or was it for our safety?
  • Which leads me to the next question who are we really protecting? “him” or “me/us”? (is it so David is safer or so that I feel better?)
  • Are we really prepared to say that the government can support tracking of individuals who have  no criminal records? How ’bout ones who have records but there is no warrant? How ’bout kids have a history of being truant?
  • Who should be tracked? Is it really the individual with disabilities on whom we need to collect data? Or is it on the staff, provider, situation, etc? (Read articles below… is it different if  the school puts the tracking device on the bus or if they put it on each child’s backpack?)

A lot of things to consider. The jury is out on this. This is timely. It’s an issue being wrestled with by courts across the nation. Think about it. It’s important, relevant, and an example where technology is really testing our beliefs in the basic principles of being American.

GPS Articles

School puts GPS tags on backpacks

GPS used at Ski School

GPS used to track truant students

GPS used without a warrant

GPS Tracking and the Constitution

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