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Chaos as 'tagging for terror' system hits glitches

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'Tagging for terror' under the new Prevention of Terrorism Act got off to an inauspicious start over the weekend, with one control order detainee left without money, food or phone for 17 hours, police being forced to break down the door of one flat, and detainees claiming to be baffled by what their control orders allowed them to do, and who they were allowed to see.

As well they might. If they want to arrange to meet someone for a cup of coffee, they have to secure the permission of their handlers. But, apparently, if while out on the street (they're allowed out, subject to curfew) they bump into the very same person they'd have to have permission to have a coffee with, then they can go and have a coffee with them. Without permission. Got that? Over the weekend the phone number intended to allow detainees to contact the Home Office didn't work, so the detainee with no food couldn't actually tell anybody, despite his allegedly being under close surveillance.

The biggest irony of the whole situation is that police sources are reportedly suggesting that the detainees may ultimately need to be given new identities. The identities of three, Abu Qatada, Djamel Ajouaou and Abu Rideh, are already in the public domain, but the Home Office has prohibited publication of any information that might lead to the identification of the others. Information published by the Appeals Tribunal and various leaks from the security services however mean that it's not massively difficult to figure out who they probably are. Nor is it likely that their neighbours will fail to notice the comings and goings associated with an intensive tagging and monitoring regime.

So there's a certain logic to fixing them up with new identities in the event of their ever being completely freed - after all, they haven't been charged with anything, so would have to be viewed as innocent; they and their families would have to be protected accordingly. Naturally a Home Office that keeps telling us how important false ID is to terrorists might have a few problems allowing this to happen, but if it ever does let them go, and hasn't contrived to bundle them off to cells in their home countries, the amount it will have to spend on their protection will likely present a few problems too.

The glitches surrounding the tagging suggest that the Home Office dream of "prisons without bars" bears little relation to the reality. Detainees have been fitted with tags by Premier Monitoring Services, one of the Home Office's tagging partners, but it appears that a simple home detention tag is being used, rather than a more sophisticated one that would allow monitoring outside the home. One of the detainees has been granted permission to use his garden provided it is within range of the monitoring device, which implies a simple home-installed system backed up by landline. These have been used fairly commonly in the UK for low risk offenders for some years, so their operation really ought to be well understood.

The difficulties the detainees face in determining what they can and cannot do also provides clear evidence of a system being developed on the march, off the top of various heads in the Home Office and security services. The possible restrictions listed in the PTA are sufficiently wide to make any kind of life virtually impossible, which means the handlers probably have to interpret their way through the restrictions in order to allow the detainees some level of functionality. Obviously, embarrassing mistakes will happen here, so what chance is there of extending the system to the "hundreds" of suspects Tony Blair talks about?

There will also be problems associated with the necessary presumption that the current subjects, and future subjects held on a similar basis, will wish to subvert the system. As The Register has argued in the past, what success tagging regimes have had has been dependent on a willingness on the part of the subject to co-operate. Tagging under such circumstances provides a simple mechanism for restricting the behaviour of individuals who probably do not wish to commit further offences, and will therefore behave themselves. Extending tagging to terror suspects, terror sympathisers or, say, the UK's top 5,000 criminals takes us into different territory - an intent to subvert must be presumed, and therefore the technology must be more robust, and the monitoring far better and more intensive. So you could maybe say that tagging works best on people who present no threat, and is impractical on any substantial scale as a weapon against those who do pose a threat. We trust the Home Office will figure this out soon without wasting too much money.

Nor is the surveillance of the current subjects necessarily all it's cracked up to be. The detainees are being allowed one fixed landline, and a computer with no Internet capability, but they and their families are banned from having mobile phones, fax machines, pagers or any other communications device. These restrictions have been imposed in order to allow the security services to monitor all calls, and while it would be foolish to conclude that the security services therefore were not able to monitor mobile calls and Internet communication, it possibly suggests that they're not absolutely confident of their abilities in the field.

For some years now The Register has been of the opinion that Government incompetence was one of the UK's most important safeguards against totalitarianism, and we are therefore more than a little comforted by unfolding events. ®

Related Stories:

UK tagging for 'terror plotters' goes live on freed suspects
The Independent on tagging chaos
Details of tagging restrictions - Guardian

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