App Review: PhoneGuard. Keeping Parents and Beliebers Happy

On: October 11, 2011
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About Andrei Florian
I'm a former Bucharest based PR professional with a BA in PR and Communication Science. Currently located in Amsterdam, I am exploring the impact of New Media on the corporate environment at the UvA New Media MA.


Designed with the noble purpose of preventing deadly traffic accidents caused by the distraction of texting while driving, the Phone Guard – Drive Safe application is in fact one new media watchtower for parents and employers to servile teenagers and employees.

This summer, Justin Bieber set out to be the saviour of teenage drivers everywhere by endorsing together with the Remember Alex Brown Foundation the Phone Guard – Drive Safe mobile application as part of a larger Don’t Text and Drive campaign.

The basic version of the app is available for free on the Phone Guard website, and can be found on the Android Market, App Store, and is also available for Blackberry users. What the app basically does is to use GPS to track speed and coordinates of the phone automatically disable texting, emailing and keyboard function of the mobile phone when this is in a vehicle moving faster than 15 mph. The users no longer are able to text, email, surf the Web, or instant message and the software sends an automatic response to incoming texts or calls. When the car is stopped for more than 20 seconds, the phone unlocks.

The app is not a very popular on the App Market, users saying that it isn’t easy to use and that it drains the battery very fast. But these technical problems can always be improved, and in fact the real interesting part comes when purchasing the full version of the Phone Guard app.

I stumble upon the application on a CNET forum thread where parents were searching for apps that allow them to servile their teens’ activity. That is because the full version of the app allows parents/employers to put a password protected agent on the kids/employees phone that sends info on the phone’s location via Google Maps back to them.

Also, if the child or employee is a passenger in a moving vehicle, they can press a specified button to request permission from parent or employer to use the text function. Permission can be granted or denied from the parent’s or employer’s cell phone. The software also features Phone TimeOut, which allows parents or employers to specify the time of day texting should be disabled, GeoFencing, which will allow the phone’s administrator to select geographic boundaries and receive a text message if the phone strays outside of the boundaries and SpeedAlert, which sends an email if the driver goes over a certain speed that the admin sets.

All in all, under the mask of saving lives, the app proves to be a powerful surveillance tool, close, oddly enough, to the ankle tracing devices. It puts the user under surveillance in the context of such traditional Foucaultian institutions as the family or the workplaces, making him internalize the power relation. The visualization process is now being carried out by new media applications as extensions of the surveyors’ senses in a Panopticon freed of enclosed spaces.

It is maybe appropriate here to recall J. Macgregor Wise’s mobile phone example of Deleuze’s assemblage in order to claim that such apps are part of the new mechanisms of control that substitute the disciplinary sites of enclosure. With the empowering possibilities given to the administrator to track and set the boarders of speed and space, such control mechanisms take the form of modulations and maybe enable us to see what Deleuze was claiming to be the replacement of disciplinary societies by societies of control. Even the title of the press release issued to announce the launch of the application implies the free-floating forms of control: ‘PhoneGuard Takes Control of Texting & Driving: Software Disables Texting and Safeguards Would-be Distracted Drivers’.

But another interesting thing to notice is the almost deceptive way in which the proprietors of the means of control use teen-idols in order to spread their surveillance mechanisms. As the comments on the campaign’s Youtube videos show, the legion of Beliebers downloaded and installed the app without filtering the repercussions of their accts.

So it is maybe interesting to pose the question of what new media subversive techniques do the subjects of surveillance have in order to defend themselves, or in Deleuze’s words:

„There is no need to ask which is the toughest or the most tolerable regime, for it’s within each of them that liberating and enslaving forces confront one another. […]There is no need to fear or hope, but only to look for new weapons.”

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