NORAD Tracks Santa program draws national fire

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130926-F-YC127-001The NORAD Tracks Santa program captured much attention when it was inadvertently developed at a Colorado Springs military outpost way back in 1955. Now, nearly 60 years later, it’s doing the same thing for a very different reason.

As most of you have read, heard or seen by now, the newest iteration of the North American Aerospace Defense Command’s holiday kiddie program — developed in part by Microsoft — has incorporated something new.

Well, most seem to think so.

This year — the program’s 58th anniversary — NORAD overhauled its widely popular Santa tracker. The new website at noradsanta.org was launched Dec. 1 from Peterson Air Force Base and depicts Santa flying his sleigh (Big Red One) on Christmas morning accompanied by an escort of what appear to be two fighter jets.

NORAD’s increased use of its own image has raised the eyebrows and concerns of child advocacy groups and media commentators from border to border. More than 311,000 people had watched the 39-second “NORAD Tracks Santa Trailer Video 2013” on YouTube by 1 p.m. Wednesday — additionally, 147,000 had viewed the longer, live-action “NORAD Tracks Santa Command Video 2013.”

While the aircraft in the computer-animated short film are hardly intimidating, with cartoonish bodies and nearly indiscernible loads, the live-action sequence is a bit more intense, with talk of missile threats, enemy targets and fighters that appear armed.

NORAD officials have said that the move was to reinforce their position as a militaristic entity, and some say that targeting children is the key to developing a strong crop of future soldiers — or interest them in non-military STEM and aerospace fields.

But even so, some say that the hubbub is over nothing at all.

In an interview with Associated Press, U.S. Navy Capt. Jeff Davis told reporters that the depiction is not a new one and that Santa has taken advantage of a jet escort since the 1960s. Davis also claims that the jets in question are unarmed Canadian Air Force CF-18s with oversized fuel tanks that may appear bomb-like to some, according to the report.

Even if Capt. Davis is wrong, what should one expect from the continent’s defense-command cooperative?

It’s NORAD: And if you don’t like the way they do things, I’m sure there are other Santa-stalking methods out there by now.

In fact, Google, a company steeped in competition and creativity, has quietly released a website and application to serve the same function. At Google.com/SantaTracker, kids and their caretakers can experience a similar selection of Christmas fun without the fighter jets and national security jargon. The services, powered by Google Maps, also include games, a holiday countdown and tours of Santa’s Village. The application is available for free download and works as a simple Chrome browser extension.

It’s unclear — albeit likely — whether Google developed the site and app to take advantage of the NORAD “controversy” or if it was merely fueled by the company’s rivalry with Microsoft, but one thing is certain — it’s good timing.

In press releases and public comments, NORAD has continued to defend its site and the video under scrutiny as non-threatening and safe for use by kids of all ages. There are parents out there, however, who would rather not expose their children to what some consider DoD indoctrination.

Either way, whether you go the aerospace/defense route or down the safe techie trail, children of all kinds should be able to stalk Santa no matter their stance on military activity.