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Here comes the tech Gotterdammerung...

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Tech-happy UK Home Secretary David Blunkett was in his element announcing the Home Office's Strategic Plan yesterday. At multiple levels, starting with satellite tracking of repeat- and minor offenders and moving swiftly on through DNA databases and sundry terror- and immigrant-detection equipment, the plan proposes to harness new technology "to maximise key opportunities" and "stay ahead of the criminal." Sort of like the Jetsons with shackles.

Blunkett's plans for broader use of satellite tracking have received most coverage so far, and these look set to take the UK into uncharted territory, beyond anything the Florida Department of Corrections, which is frequently cited by the Home Office as an example of successful deployment, has implemented. Blunkett envisages a "prison without bars" (i.e. the UK) where "first-time" low level non-violent offenders would actually be tracked rather than sent to short-term prison sentences." At this level GPS technology, likely using some form of bracelet, can probably be implemented with some degree of effectiveness, as most of the subjects will actively want to stay out of prison and will be prepared to cooperate. However, if it is to have any effect whatsoever on the prison population it will require a very substantial expansion of of the Home Office's tagging and tracking programmes.

Currently the UK uses electronic monitoring (not the same as satellite tracking, and largely home-based curfew systems) for around 9,000 people. GPS tracking, however, would involve monitoring the movement of subjects, making it possible to keep an eye on what they were up to in general, and to enforce movement restrictions on particular subjects. With the likelihood of several tens of thousands ultimately coming into this category, even if the subjects were largely cooperative there would be a requirement for procedures to deal with the many, many occasions when some of them would move out of GPS coverage (perfectly innocently, or perhaps not...) and for the invention of a whole new branch of the call centre business. The Home Office envisages these call centres being operated by the private companies supplying the tracking gear, so some years hence, somewhere in the Indian subcontinent, Big Brother is watching...

The Home Office's plans to deploy the technology on repeat and priority offenders as part of the "Prolific and Other Priority Offenders Strategy" is a much trickier proposition, as here we are talking about people who largely don't want to cooperate. And my, what a lot of them we've got. There are apparently around a million active offenders in the UK (that's right, just cast your eye around the office, the bus, the train carriage and wonder), and 100,000 offenders have three or more convictions and are responsible for half of all crime. Unsportingly, this 100k pool's population changes by 20,000 each year, with that number apparently becoming good and being replaced by a further 20,000 from the rest of us, moving over to the Dark Side.

The Home Office does not at this juncture envisage a 'three strikes and you're networked' programme, but drills down further to a handier-sized population of 5,000. These, it says, are the most active offenders and are estimated to be responsible for one in ten of offences. "Electronic tracking will be introduced for the most prolific offenders [i.e., the 5,000] so their movements are known on a 24 hour basis," says the strategy document.

As the Home Office will be starting with pilots, it will not be attempting to handle 5,000 subjects initially, but as it envisages tracking sex offenders, the problem 5,000 and various other categories (those barred from specific areas under Anti-Social Behaviour Orders, for example), it clearly intends to be dealing with large numbers of not terribly cooperative subjects quite soon. Florida, on the other hand, operates a fairly modest scheme compared to what the Home Office has in mind. Here you will see the Florida Department of Corrections' Electronic Monitoring report for March of this year, and you'll note a couple of things about it. First, the numbers are extremely modest, and second, if you read back through the reports you'll find the numbers are pretty static. Home Office reps who tell us they've been to Florida and seen the future would do well to realise that Florida hasn't actually tried that future.

But onwards and upwards. The Home Office notes the projected 2008 arrival of biometric ID cards, and says it will develop "a new system... to automatically record those entering and leaving the country." It is worth noting that the latter is presented as a separate system, so it is clearly not included in the ID scheme tab we've already heard about, although it's quite clearly part and parcel of the scheme. In addition, £800 million is to be invested in "a joined up criminal justice system in which the police, courts, prosecution, prisons and probation can securely exchange information and reduce duplication."

The "joined-up system" will allow "police, probation, youth offending teams and their partners [Who they? Securicor?]" to identify "the main offenders in their local area. They will be intensively monitored, caught, punished and more effectively rehabilitated..." This first phase "will be followed... by a determined roll out of enhanced tagging to control criminal behaviour... and the beginning of satellite tracking to allow more effective monitoring of some criminals after prison... As this approach develops, we will see the police and probation services increasingly mobilising the strength and local knowledge of communities" (by which we think they mean they want to industrialise grassing).

There is more, much more. The document reveals that there's already a £2 billion police IT investment programme, and that the use of automatic number plate recognition will be expanded, with improved "data linkages between the system [er, what system?] and the DVLA and Police National Computer to help identify cars of interest to the police." Hilariously, however, shortly after claiming the £2 billion scheme and revealing the extra £800 million, it tells us there will be a further £800 million investment "on top of the £1.2 billion already committed." So the Blair government's talent for double entry bookkeeping is clearly alive and well.

There will be a new Safer and Stronger Communities Fund "worth £660 million over three years." This will provide finance for "better home security and CCTV." Technology will be used for crime analysis, via the National Intelligence Model, "a system for rigorously analysing crime threats and focusing resources where they are needed most."

Over at immigration, the entry and exit monitoring system will use "the information collected by airlines and ferry companies" (i.e., it's CAPPS UK). Known as e-Borders, it "will begin to identify people who have boarded transport destined for the UK, check them automatically against databases of individuals who pose a security risk, and keep a simple electronic record of entry into the country." Backing this up is groovy people sniffing kit. CO2 detectors, gamma scanners, passive millimetric wave imagers and heartbeat detection equipment.

It has already been suggested, not least in these parts, that the ID card scheme may turn out to be Blunkett's poll tax. But after checking through this little lot we really do think poll tax understates matters. The Home Office's giant pile of interconnecting (yeah, right...) IT schemes designed to monitor, manacle and manage us will intersect most horribly with the UK government's catastrophic record on IT implementation, resulting in a full-scale IT Gotterdammerung. And you won't need to trust us on this. ®

Related links:

Iris scans at UK airports, says Home Office Commissioner 'increasingly alarmed' by ID card scheme

A tag too far - Blunkett's satellite tracking plans The Home Office Strategic Plan

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