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AngelSense safety devices may violate privacy, broadcast consent

It's relatively common among kids along the autism spectrum to wander off from school. It's also pretty common for kids with autism to have difficulty sharing the details of their school day with Mom and Dad.

A new GPS-based technology could have a role to play in helping parents feel comfortable that their children are safely at school. The AngelSense device allows GPS tracking, so if a child wanders down the street, he or she can be easily found. It also contains a listening device, which could allow parents to monitor their child's experiences at school.

Moreover, since kids with autism often have difficulty reporting what they have experienced, AngelSense could be used as a surveillance device by parents concerned about bullying or sub-par education.

Unfortunately, using the AngelSense device at school may not be entirely legal.

"You just can't set up shop and start broadcasting without violating someone's rights," says a spokesperson for Neola, a school policy advocacy group.

Some school districts are considering steps to keep AngelSense out of schools without special permission. One is the Perrysburg School District in Ohio.

Like New York, Ohio is a "one-party consent" state, meaning that conversations can legally be recorded if only one participant has given consent. Whether that law even applies in this situation is difficult to say, however. For one thing, the AngelSense doesn't have a recording capacity -- it only listens in. For another, the law hasn't traditionally been applied to overheard conversations. Finally, minors might not be in a position to give legal consent.

Everyone agrees that the device is well-intentioned. A parent who uses AngelSense simply assumed that classrooms are like open books. If her child came home and told her about a conversation, that wouldn't violate the law. Doesn't that mean such conversations aren't all that private?

The same parent pointed out that she has never used the listening capacity on her son's AngelSense. In fact, one of the founders of AngelSense doesn't record anything and that the listening function provides only low-quality audio. There's a protective case, and most kids carry the device in a pocket or inside their clothing. It could best be used to help locate a wandering child by giving access to ambient noise and the child's voice.

The Neola spokesperson doesn't consider the GPS part of the device to be legally problematic.

What do you think school policies should say about using devices like the AngelSense? Is there a reasonable way to meet everyone's goals and concerns?

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