Trick-or-treat tracking tech

On a dark street corner, a child dressed as Iron Man stands and looks around nervously. He swings his jack-o'-lantern bucket of candy against his knees, and jumps when a group of older children dressed as ghosts and monsters runs screaming past him. It's cold, it's late, and he's lost. Ping! A smartphone chimes, and the child pulls it from his pocket to see a message: "You got separated from us! We see you on the map, and we're coming to find you!" A moment later, his group rounds the corner, laughing, with flashlights in hand.

Halloween can be pretty scary, with ninjas, superheroes, and the occasional zombie running amok and demanding free candy. It’s also an exciting time for children, who will want to show off their terrifyingly adorable costumes while roaming the neighborhood with their friends. But real dangers can lurk out there in the night, and as fun as trick-or-treating can be, keeping your kids safe is of utmost importance.

The best possible option is the simplest one: Take your kids trick-or-treating yourself. If that isn’t possible, your child’s smartphone can be an excellent way to keep an eye on your kids while they’re out collecting candy. Plenty of apps and services for Android and iOS devices will let you know exactly where they are, and they’ll just be a text or a phone call away if you’re ever worried. Here are some simple but powerful options you should check out. If your child doesn’t have a smartphone, you can loan out yours, as these services are also accessible from a Web browser.

Please note: Handing your child a smartphone is no substitute for a real guardian keeping an eye on them. Arrange for your child to travel with a group of friends, and send an older sibling or a trusted relative along—I recommend offering a percentage of the total candy haul to sweeten the deal.

Find My Friends

Notifications on Find My Friends

Apple’s Find My Friends is designed to let you keep track of family members and pals, but it works only on Apple devices. The app is free and available on the App Store. You'll need to install the app on your device and on the phone you want to track, and then sign in with an Apple ID; each device you’re tracking will need an ID, but they’re free and you can create them in a few minutes—just head to Apple’s My Apple ID page to set one up. Once the app is configured, you’ll need to invite every Apple ID you’d like to track, and then accept the invitation on the device. Once that’s done, you’re set! Opening the app will present you with a list of every person you’ve added, any contact info you may have stored, and quick access to directions, if you’d like to meet up with that person.

If your kids are headed to a friend’s house, you can press the Notify Me button to instruct the app to send you an alert when they leave or arrive at a particular address. If you’re sending your children out with an iPhone-toting guardian who doesn’t necessarily want to be tracked in perpetuity, Find My Friends also offers a temporary option: Just select the Temporary tab in the Find My Friends app, and invite your child’s guardian to an event—say, “Halloween”—with a definitive end time.

Apple’s Find My iPhone app may be a bit less elegant than other options, but this service is also accessible from Apple’s iCloud website. You’ll need to download the Find My iPhone app and turn on Find My iPhone on every phone you wish to track; it’s in the Settings menu, under iCloud. Fire up the app or sign in to the website and click the Find My iPhone icon, and the location of all the devices you own will be plotted on a map—provided that they’re currently on and connected to a cellular or Wi-Fi network. The Find My iPhone app and website will also let you lock the phone and display a brief message, or cause the phone to play a series of loud tones until the phone is unlocked—a handy feature, should you need to get someone’s attention. If your child’s phone is off or can’t be tracked, tap the Notify Me When Found checkbox on the Find My iPhone app or website to receive an email alert when the device resurfaces.

It’s important to note that these options will work only if the device in question has service, and is turned on. Keep that in mind if your kids will be trick-or-treating anywhere with spotty service, and be sure their devices are fully charged before they set off.

Google Latitude

Google Latitude

Google Latitude isn’t quite as attractive or robust as Apple’s Find My Friends, but it works on both Android and iOS devices. Apple fans will find the free app on the App Store. If you’re an Android user, you’ll find Google Latitude baked right into the Maps application; it will work on most every Android device, though you’ll want to make sure you’ve installed the latest updates.

Open the Maps application on your Android device, and select Latitude from the menu—just tap the Maps logo at the top-left corner of the screen. You’ll be prompted to activate location sharing and the GPS function (if available) on your device, if you haven’t already. If you’re on an Apple device, open the app and log in to your Google account.

Once Latitude is up and running, you’ll need to add folks you’d like to keep an eye on; the button for doing so is generally at the bottom of your device’s display, and looks like a person’s silhouette. You can pull contact information directly from your address book or enter an email address manually. Then, your children or their guardian will need to accept your invitation, which will arrive by email. Once they’ve accepted, their locations will pop up on your map in Latitude.

Google Latitude will list the most recent location for everyone you’ve added, each person's relative distance from you, and the approximate time that data was collected. Tapping a name on Latitude’s list will give you that person's exact position on your map or send you directions to their most recently recorded location. It doesn’t offer Find My Friends-style location notification, and it won’t actively attempt to track a phone’s location, but you can check Google Latitude on the Web, which should give you a handy bird's-eye view of your family's whereabouts.

Note that Latitude is more of a social networking tool than a tried-and-true people tracker; it will only detect devices that have cellular or Wi-Fi coverage, and it offers no notification options or the like to keep you in the loop if a phone goes off the grid. Keep these limitations in mind before sending your kids off for the night.

Life360

Life360 messages

The Life360 app is a bona fide family-tracking service and offers persistent tracking that's leagues ahead of mere social networking tools. It’s free to use, and although a premium subscription is available, the basic functionality should be more than enough to help you get through Halloween and keep an eye on your kids.

You can find the Life360 app on iOS, Android, and BlackBerry devices—get it on your app store of choice, or directly from the Life360 website. You’ll need to create accounts for your family and install the app on every device you’d like to track, but it's all straightforward: You can send out invitations from the app or website, which will include links to download the app and sign up. Once everyone has logged in to the Life360 app on their phone, it will run in the background and immediately start sharing location information on a map. Tapping on a particular family member's name will give you detailed location information (including a list of where they’ve been), show you directions to them, and request that they check in by responding to a pop-up alert to indicate whether they’re safe. Life360’s map also displays nearby police stations, fire departments, hospitals, and (curiously) registered sex offenders; you can disable any of those options in the app’s settings menu.

The map takes up most of Life360’s interface, but three large buttons sit at the top right. The red panic button will send out a distress signal, calling the family members on your list while also emailing and texting your location to them. It’s honestly a bit alarming, but the feature's 10-second countdown will give you plenty of time to cancel if you’ve pressed the button accidentally. The messaging function will send a note to everyone on your list, though you can decide whether to limit the messages to app alerts or duplicate them in email and text messages. The green checkmark button lets you check in, sending an alert to everyone on your list that includes your location and a note that you’re safe.

Life360 suffers from many of the same limitations of Apple’s Find My Friends and Google’s Latitude; for instance, any device you’re tracking must have a clear cellular, Wi-Fi, or GPS signal to be tracked accurately, so keep dead zones in mind before relying on one of these tools. In addition, there's nothing to stop your children from simply uninstalling the app or logging out of the service, so talk to them about your intentions before sending them off. You’ll also want to make sure that their devices are fully charged—Life360 seemed not to have a dramatic effect on the battery life of any of the devices I tested it on, but polling GPS satellites at regular intervals will certainly take a toll.

Family Tracker

Family Tracker on Android

Family Tracker is the least attractive of the bunch, and also the priciest—it's $5 for the Android version, and $4 for iOS devices. It’s also the most aggressive option on my list, giving you considerable control over update frequency and offering premium features that quite frankly give me pause, but it may seem attractive to parents who don’t want to take any risks with their child’s safety.

You’ll need to purchase the app on every Android device you want to track, which could prove costly if you’re an Android household. A free, Lite version is available for iOS; this version allows the phone to be tracked, but locks all other functionality (including responding to messages) behind a paywall. Once the app is installed, tap the Locate Others tab to add a name and email address for the child you want to keep an eye on.

An invitation email provides links to the app on the store; and once your child has validated your tracking request, their name and location information will appear in the app. You’ll receive an email confirmation that also includes a link for tracking the person through a browser—you’ll want to bookmark that, as there’s no Web interface that lets you check that information on the fly. Clicking a contact’s name in the app shows you their location on a map, and allows you to send the person a free text message that also forces the device to update its location. The Android version is decidedly more robust, as it gives you granular control over how often a phone checks in (as frequently as once every minute), lets you override the phone’s vibrate setting to send a loud alert tone, and allows you to send “stealthy pings,” which force the device you’re tracking to update its GPS location without notifying whoever you’re tracking.

Family Tracker’s premium features give you the detailed location history of any device you're tracking, with breadcrumbs revealing where the person has been every few minutes for the past several weeks; you can export this GPS history as a GPX or KML file to use with external applications. Such information could be useful for keeping tabs on a child or tracking where they’ve been if they go missing. A one-month subscription costs $2; a 12-month subscription costs $20.

The app’s aggressive GPS tracking can take a toll on battery life, but the app offers fairly granular control over the GPS’s accuracy. On an iPhone 4S, I didn’t see a dramatically noticeable hit when I instructed the GPS to update only with major shifts in location, but setting it to update every 10 to 15 minutes on an Android device sapped hours of battery life; you’ll want to keep these settings (and how long you expect your child to be out and about) in mind when you’re configuring the app.

Preparing for the worst

No child-tracking solution is foolproof: If a phone’s battery dies or your child gets lost in an area without cellular service or a GPS signal, you’ll want to act quickly to get them home safely.

A few free tools can help you prepare for the worst. It’s important to have contact information and recent photographs on hand that you can readily distribute to anyone who will be capable of keeping an eye out for your child. AmberAlert’s free Child ID card kit offers a simple way to couple your child’s photo and distinguishing feature with your contact information, giving you a quick item to distribute if you can’t find your child. The free FBI Child ID is available for Android and iOS devices, and provides another location to store your child’s identifying information, as well as tips to keep them safe and advice on how to proceed if they’ve gone missing.

First and foremost, talk to your children: Tell them to stay alert, instruct them to stick with their friends and guardian, and let them know exactly how you’re tracking them, and how often you expect them to check in while they’re out having fun. Let’s make sure that awesome costumes are the only scary things you and your children encounter this Halloween.

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