A tag too far - Blunkett's satellite tracking plans

UK becomes 'prison without bars'

UK Home Secretary David Blunkett is planning a radical extension to existing electronic tagging and monitoring systems, floating the use of satellite tracking to monitor the movement of sex offenders, and the deployment of lie detector tests to check that the subjects aren't breaking the terms of their release. The satellite systems are to be tested on serious offenders later this year.

As regards the lie detectors, these have already been tested with probation services. Blunkett, the IT snake-oil salesman's friend, described these as "21st Century technology", meaning apparently that they're entirely different from the lie detectors of squalid reputation and dubious reliability we know so well.

Their deployment, however, does have considerable significance. The Home Office has been testing tagging and monitoring for some years now, and seems to have found them to be fairly effective. It has, however, been dealing largely with the 'low hanging fruit' of tagging subjects - minor offenders subject to curfew orders, early release candidates, non-custodial sentences and so on. This kind of tagging can be sold fairly easily on the basis that it keeps families together, gives minor offenders a better opportunity to return to the straight and narrow and allows former prisoners to be eased back into the community.

In most of these cases a pretty high percentage of the subjects are actually going to want to cooperate with the system. So, if it's a simple home-based curfew system that uses a landline to check that they're home when they're supposed to be home, then you can rely on the majority of them to just use the system rather than trying to circumvent it. Plus, most of the people who've been covered so far aren't particularly dangerous.

Obvious problems however arise when you contemplate extending the system to people who may be dangerous, are likely to want to circumvent the system or who actively wish to abscond. The lie detector tests are therefore intended to extend the boundaries a little by putting another psychological weapon in the hands of the probationary services. The people being tested will on balance be less likely to lie and more likely to behave themselves, and in that sense it probably doesn't matter greatly whether the technology works or not.

Obviously it does matter on the more serious cases who will try to fool them, so again we're talking low-hanging fruit here.

The next generation satellite tracking systems Blunkett envisages are now available, and can come small enough (example) to combine GPS and GSM in an ankle bracelet. Blunkett sees this kind of equipment being used to monitor the movements of high risk offenders, making sure they don't stray into forbidden areas, and he has also floated the notion of using such systems to keep track of asylum seekers. There are however some obvious problems here, and the further you widen the catchment area for tagging subjects, the bigger these become.

GPS and GSM networks don't work everywhere, so unless the permitted movements of a subject are extremely restricted, practically all the people being monitored will blip in and out of coverage throughout a normal day. You could conceivably build procedures into the monitoring process to allow for this, say, requiring action from the subject within a specific period of coverage being lost, but the addition of these adds complexity to the system and will increase the number of inadvertent defaulters. And as you move away from low-level, low-risk subjects to high risk, as Blunkett intends, you move away from a system which can be administered fairly easily to one that requires sophisticated monitoring centres where red lights flash when something really goes wrong. But, you hope/wish, only when something really goes wrong.

Very widespread deployment of tagging and tracking will require very complex back end systems, and the Home Office is likely to find these considerably more expensive and accident-prone than it currently anticipates.

And although Blunkett is giving himself powers to tag asylum seekers, it's extremely doubtful that he'll ever find any justification for using them. His concern, surely, is to be able to find failed applicants and eject them from the UK - particularly, he wishes to do this with the ones who don't want to be found. The latest bracelets are tamper-proofed and alarmed, but it's entirely unclear how they could resist an absconder armed with a set of bolt cutters and a bicycle. ®

Related stories

UK.gov plans satellite tracking of asylum seekers
UK Home Office unit looking at electronic offender tagging

Sponsored: How to determine if cloud backup is right for your servers