Leading Tory moots electronic tracking for UK paedos

Cites Florida 'success'

The UK's shadow home secretary Oliver Letwin has called for the setting up of a government working party to investigate the feasibility of electronically monitoring paedophiles. Letwin, who is frequently categorised as one of the more sensible components of the Conservative Party high command, cites the "success" of Florida's use of electronic monitoring as reason enough for the UK to look at it.

Speaking on Radio 4's Today programme this morning (clip available at Today's Listen Again page, Letwin was careful to stress that he wasn't recommending tagging as such, just saying that seeing we could do it we should look at it. And he stressed he wasn't a techie, then went ahead and pronounced on what Florida is doing anyway. Florida's Department of Corrections uses either RF or GPS for monitoring probationers, offenders and ex-offenders. As you'll see from the July 2002 report the numbers are quite small, with getting on for two thirds using GPS, and GPS apparently being deemed by the authorities to be more appropriate for sex offenders.

Letwin's view is that we now have the technology "which would enable us to track where an individual is." They could be banned from being near schools, and "we could use this technology to automatically alert police if this person went near a school."

Florida's RF system, described here, is used as a home detention system where an alarm sounds if the wearer tries to leave the home. You'll also note there's a voice recognition system where the individual is phoned up at random and has to answer with a matching voice. Whether tape recording will suffice we know not, but in any event these are both systems for detecting when somebody is not where they're supposed to be, not where they are.

The GPS system used in Florida does keep track of where people are, after a fashion. It consists of a GPS box plus a wireless ankle bracelet, so the GPS system knows where it is, and tells the cellular modem in the same box, which transmits its location to a data centre every ten minutes. This is what Florida calls "near real-time." The taggee's movements are logged, but it's also possible to assign no-go areas to individuals, so an alarm can be set off if they go into one of them. The Florida system is supplied by Pro Tech Monitoring, and you can find more detail here.

Where you'll note that the box is rather large. But there are other, slightly more svelte devices coming onto the market. Size, at the moment, is itself a snag if you're thinking about tagging paedophiles for the rest of their lives, rather than just a supervision period. GPS however is a bigger problem because it doesn't work if it doesn't have line of sight to a satellite, so individuals under monitoring have to be really careful about going into buildings, or the monitoring system has to make allowances for that. This is probably less of a problem with the more-widespread non-realtime tagging systems in use. These tend to simply record location data and then transmit it when the box is plugged into the charger. So you lose alarms entirely, but provided the individual reappears approximately where they were last snapped, then they were probably just in a building. Just probably, of course - they could also be somewhere entirely different, but with the GPS device in some kind of foil bag.

At the moment the technology is nowhere near the size or capability envisaged by Kevin Warwick (on whom we propose not to dwell today), but tagging and tracking is getting more feasible, and is actually more feasible in Europe's relatively mature mobile phone networks than it is in the US. GSM systems can track your position closely*, and so GPS can be cut out of the picture. And phones can be pretty small, so a lifetime bracelet is already achievable.

Letwin says: "One would need to hedge it about very very carefully to make sure it is not the thin end of the wedge where we are all tracked every moment of our lives," but there does seem a certain inevitability to its introduction, and - probably - to its slow extension to other areas. It's in use in some shape or form in many parts of the US, and there the wedge does seem to be broadening steadily. Remote breath-monitoring for drunk drivers for example - there's another group that's not going to get much public sympathy. A handy system that could be used for road-charging? Some people might think so, particularly once the clunky-sounding London charging experiment (pre-pay, and it's supposed to clock your number plate as you enter) has kicked in next year. There are many slippery slopes.

Letwin, incidentally, made his proposal as part of a six point plan, which is available here. He also wants a central "IT-based" paedophile register, tougher sentences for people who don't cough up the encryption keys for child porn and a new "Internet grooming" offence. ®

* In the interests of science The Register just tried this with Vodafone's new "FIND ME" text service. You are near Thorpe Road, Tottenham, it says. Um, not that near, really, but we expect they'll switch on the hard stuff eventually.

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