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Tag-a-lag: Chip implants mooted for UK prisoners

Wishful thinking to solve prison crisis, apparently...

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The Ministry of Justice is planning to solve the crisis in the UK prison system by fitting prisoners with surgically implanted tracking chips, claims the Independent on Sunday, citing a senior Ministry official. The chips, claims the paper, would be used to keep order in prison and to enforce home curfews.

Which appears to be the origin of this deranged story. Other newspapers have covered MoJ plans to expand tagging in order to allow for shorter sentencing, but the IoS alone has contrived to talk to an MoJ wingnut who thinks that the tracking part of people-chipping is doable. The state of the art as described by the paper involves "tags, injected into the back of the arm with a hypodermic needle, consist of a toughened glass capsule holding a computer chip, a copper antenna and a 'capacitor' that transmits data stored on the chip when prompted by an electromagnetic reader". By a miraculous coincidence this matches the entry control system implemented by Citywatcher.com two years ago.

This system was sufficiently capable to allow the luckless chipped employees to gain entry when they placed their forearm in a reader. So yes, you can see how it might be used to reduce staffing in prisons by automating some barriers, but it clearly doesn't join onto "hi-tech satellite tagging" without the involvement of an external reader. In this case, it would have to be a strap-on unit in close proximity to the tag chip, so you'd be replacing an easy to remove tag with an easy to remove unit.

Sort of. Satellite tracking, which incidentally has barely been used at all in the UK penal system, depends on the fitted tag being in close proximity to a communications device with built-in GPS, so it theoretically works so long as the tag is still on the offender, the communications device is close enough to read it and the communications device is in a position to report the GPS location. Less complicated and more commonly-used devices simply require that the tag be within range of a home unit which monitors a curfew.

So conceivably, a sub-dermal tag would be less removable than a strap-on one (a common subversion involves using a hair dryer), but would require the subject to wear a reader system that would send an alert whenever it was out of range of the tag.

But there are obvious flaws. Cats, dogs and cattle are currently managed by implants, but they don't have the tech to remove them, whereas people do (sure, it'd hurt). The chips themselves aren't particularly secure, so could be copied and the copy stuck to the abandoned reader, while the reader unit would itself need to be sufficiently secure to be proof against subversion.

Given the costs involved in trying to make this kind of system work, it seems far more likely that the MoJ will attempt to solve the tag removal problem by trying to source conventional external tags that are, er, a little more difficult to remove. That however doesn't help with the other problems of tagging regimes - monitoring systems are prone to error and failure (and will become more so with the expansion of the system), and systems that involve satellite tracking are vulnerable to tall buildings cutting out GPS, and don't work indoors or if the subject simply blocks the signal.

Effectively, it's no answer at all, but neither of the other answers are particularly palatable. Faced with a prison system that's now virtually permanently at full capacity, the MoJ could build more prisons or reform sentencing policy. These were the only viable answers several years ago when the then Home Secretary, David Blunkett, opted instead for his tagging-based "prisons without bars" plan, and this is the failure the MoJ is now attempting to dig itself out of.

Blunkett and subsequent Home Secretaries have avoided the expense of building more prisons and have shirked reforming sentencing in order to avoid seeming soft on crime. Which has left tagging, despite its huge flaws, as the only game in town. The current MoJ inherited John Reid's prison crisis with the break-up of the Home Office, and is reacting in the same, tried, tested and failed ways.

All our yesterdays In 2002 a similarly vague scheme was floated in another Sunday paper, and covered here. You will note that we were absolutely correct in our prediction of the kind of regime the Home Office would actually deploy - relatively low-tech, mainly home curfew systems. It'll be no different this time around. ®

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