Superman Pajamas

How SmartWear Technologies hopes to profit from paranoia

Illustration by Matt BorsA black-and-white photograph of a little girl is the first image that comes up on the SmartWear Technologies, Inc., website: Danielle Van Dam, age 7, kidnapped three years ago from her San Diego home. A block of cold, red text abruptly descends, obscuring her face. "MURDERED," it trumpets in stenciled letters. If only she'd been wearing pajamas with SmartWear technology, an alarm would have sounded, and she'd be alive today. Yet it continues, the slide show of abducted children, trudging grimly on with names we know all too well: Polly Klaas (MURDERED), Elizabeth Smart (MISSING 9 MONTHS), Samantha Runnion (MURDERED). It ends with the image of a fallen teddy bear, dropped on the ground—presumably by a frightened child in an unfamiliar grip—and a nauseatingly manipulative statistic that surrounds the picture: "In 2004 alone, 876,280 people went missing. 90 percent of them were children."

In fact, child abduction statistics like this one are notoriously deceptive. Although thousands of children are in fact reported missing each year, less than 9 percent of those are the result of abductions. Only around 100 child abductions in a typical year—less than a fraction of 1 percent of all kids reported missing—are "stereotypical kidnappings," or overnight abductions perpetrated by non-family members, according to the authoritative National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC), which bases its statistics on data from police departments across the nation. Even fewer of those kidnappings occurred in the home. Fewer still ended in murder.

But the thought of your child going missing is terrifying to a parent—and SmartWear has figured out a way to capitalize on that. Children's clothing designer Lauren Scott is creating a line of children's sleepwear with traceable radio frequency identification (RFID) tags in its hems—based on chip technology patented and licensed by SmartWear. Its chips are designed to prevent kidnapping by activating an alarm similar to a smoke detector if a child goes outside a prescribed area. Scott says that recent high-profile kidnapping cases inspired her to create the line—which is coming to a major retailer in February 2006.

"I followed the [Elizabeth] Smart case, and the one where the little girl went missing in Florida. It's terrifying. I wanted to give parents a way to prevent their kids from becoming one of those cases," Scott says.

RFID tags have been around since the late '60s and have begun replacing older technologies like bar codes and magnetic strips. They're used in car anti-theft systems, library books and identification badges and are commonly implanted in the ears of pets in case they get lost. Scott's clothing line is the first marketed to parents for their children. Her pajamas work in conjunction with a home alarm system costing several hundred dollars that can read the tags within a 30 foot radius. The price tag is hefty, but Scott thinks it's money well spent.

"If you save one child, it's worth it," she says. "Especially if it's yourchild." Except that, as we've seen, with missing children it's rarely that simple. Most missing children are runaways—an estimated 45 percent, according to the NCMEC. Children who are abducted are most often kidnapped by non-custodial parents or family members—the type of abductors who would know to remove tagged sleepwear before taking the child. Eight percent of kids reported missing turn out to be lost and are usually found within hours. Forty-three percent of the children reported missing aren't missing at all—they turn up at soccer practice, a violin lesson or the arcade. And Scott's new sleepwear line is far from foolproof itself: it can protect children from kidnapping, but it doesn't meet national safety standards for children's sleepwear flammability, she explains. Federal law requires that garments sold as children's sleepwear be either flame-resistant or snug-fitting. Her RFID-tagged creations, though marketed as pajamas, are neither, and must be labeled "Not intended for use as sleepwear."

Ironically, burns caused by flammable pajamas are more common than kidnappings: around 300 children required emergency treatment for burns caused by flammable pajamas in 1999, according to the Consumer Product Safety Commission—the most recent statistics available. The same principle applies to the possibility that your child might die as the result of a "stereotypical kidnapping": according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, your child is five times more likely to die in a bicycle accident than in such an abduction. Similarly, the American Medical Association reports your progeny is more likely to choke to death than to be taken from home by a stranger. A good, old-fashioned kidnapping could be the least of your problems.

 
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