American and British youth movements Young Judaea (YJ) and the Federation of Zionist Youth (FZY) are piloting a tracking system that will ease the minds of hundreds of British and US-based parents sending their children to Israel for a year.
The two youth movements, which run a joint program bringing more than 400 18-year-olds to Israel for a year of Hebrew studies and volunteering projects, have arranged for software company Office Core and cell phone company Israel Phones to supply them with a unique software that can immediately find the location of every participant at all times.
"Each student is told during the program's orientation that they are required to keep a fully charged cell phone with them at all times," said Mike Mitchell, the program's director of community volunteering, who is also responsible for the security and safety of the 440 participants.
Mitchell explained that since the start of this year's program in September, every phone was fitted with a "special SIM card that allows each child to be tracked by a computerized tracking system."
"What that means is that in the event of a terrorist attack, we can log onto a server and send an immediate request to know the exact location of each person," he said. "The software sends us back a silent SMS that pinpoints where they are on a map of the country."
He said that YJ/FZY had used the device once so far, following an explosion in the Dan region.
"It turned out that it was not a terrorist attack but a gas explosion," recalled Mitchell. "In any case, we activated the software and found the location of all our students. Now we know that it works effectively."
He added that many times during a terrorist attack, the cell phone network in the immediate vicinity of the explosion collapses.
"If a person's phone does not respond to the location request that is sent out, then we will know immediately who we should be worried about," he said.
Despite the notion that such a device could be considered an invasion of privacy, Mitchell commented that all the parents who had sent their children on YJ/FZY Yearcourse were informed about the pilot and, he said, all seemed to receive the idea very well.
"It gives parents a sense of reassurance," said Mitchell, adding, "This is not an issue of big brother checking up on whether the students went to their ulpan class or volunteer placements, but it is a question of safety and security."
"We take security extremely seriously and have a very professional approach," continued Mitchell. "I believe this is one of the reasons why parents choose to send their children on our year program."
Raz Bar-David, marketing manager for Office Core, said the technology had already been used for short-term groups such as Taglit (birthright Israel) as a security mechanism for group leaders.
"There was a case this summer when a Taglit group was lost on a hike in Nahal Yehuda, and the leader sent out an SOS to the tracking device to show where the group was," said Bar-David.
However, he said that as far as he knew, YJ/FZY Yearcourse was the first program to use the tracker for their teenage participants.
"On Yearcourse, the students are more independent, they are not with their leaders all the time," pointed out Mitchell. "Participants on short-term programs have no free time to move around the country on their own."
However, Mitchell added that as with all security devices, it was possible that participants on short-term programs would also eventually become part of the tracking system.
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