Keeping tags on offenders is no crime

Electronic tagging of released prisoners is not the dawning of a Big Brother state. It’s technology put to good use.

It’s either a great leap forward in the rehabilitation of offenders into society, or it’s the first step on a slippery slope into a Big Brother state. Even worse, it’s a licence to let thugs back into the community to harass and intimidate law-abiding people, without serving a proper punishment for their crimes.

Electronic tagging of offenders has been an emotive subject since it was first mooted decades ago. It’s been one of those ‘hot buttons’ that politicians and political commentators can lazily push to score cheap points when they’re trying to claim that the other side is either soft on crime or bent on destroying civil liberties.

But the button has become less effective over recent years, as tagging schemes have been piloted across numerous police regions, without anarchy breaking out or a police state taking over. In fact most people probably don’t even know if criminals in their local jails are being tagged and released. Nor do they much care.

Perhaps they should. A new generation of electronic tagging technology looks set to reignite public debate over the efficacy and morality of electronic tagging schemes. That’s because the new breed of tagging is of a much higher standard than previous attempts, and opens up new possibilities for law enforcement and surveillance. In the heightened atmosphere of a looming war, technology of this kind assumes a new significance.

The tagging devices used up to now have been fairly low grade. Clumsy ankle bracelets communicate on radio frequencies with local base stations, and so can detect if the wearer is out of a permitted range. Voice-recognition systems require offenders to call in at regular intervals.

By contrast, the new Qinetiq GPS receivers will allow much swifter and more precise monitoring of where offenders are, so they can be tracked 24 hours a day wherever in the country they are.

One weakness of the system is that it still requires a bracelet. With some difficulty offenders could take this off. When caught they would receive a severe penalty, but it wouldn’t stop them committing a serious crime.

For this reason alone it would be better to confine the use of tags to less serious and non-violent criminals. When the technology has been sufficiently miniaturised, would an implantable chip be a better option?

Suggestions like that raise the hackles of civil liberties campaigners. Only last week we heard the suggestion that within two decades babies could be implanted with chips at birth that would hold their medical details, genetic information and identifying data. How convenient if this would also allow people’s movements to be tracked!

Seen this way, the idea of tagging offenders is a first step. Next comes tagging young people so their parents can ensure their safety. Then tagging old people so they cannot wander away and get lost. Then how about tagging suspected criminals, not just convicts? Or tagging people without their knowledge?

Big Brother, anyone?

Yet the technology exists to achieve a high degree of surveillance, without the new Qinetiq enhanced GPS system. Satellite photos can track the movement of cars; roadside cameras can catch the licence plate number; CCTV cameras can be attached to face-recognition software that will single out suspects in crowds. This technology may have been developed for different reasons, but it can be used to survey citizens if governments turn it to those ends.

Instead of trying to prevent this technology, the only way to safeguard rights is to set up strong defences of liberty in law.

But that’s just one side of the argument. On the opposite front, conservative campaigners object that tagging is far too soft for criminals. Recent suggestions that burglars should not receive custodial sentences raised a furore – there remains a deep-seated need for people to be seen to be punished, to be deprived of their liberty in jail.

The real problem here is that the whole tenor of public debate over crime in this country is wrong. Just mention crime and everyone gets hysterical. A calmer tone would serve the public better. For a judiciary seeking to ease the problem of prison overcrowding tagging offers a cheap and convenient way out. It may also help to lower crime rates. There is no evidence to suggest that offenders who have been tagged pose a significant danger to other people, and much to show that sending people to jail creates a culture of reoffence.

This is not a licence for criminals to step back into the community without punishment. Nor is it the first step towards the routine surveillance of civilians. It’s a great example of new technology being used for the public good, in this case allowing offenders to be readmitted to normal society in a rehabilitative fashion. It’s exactly what technology development should be about.

Fiona Harvey is technology writer for the Financial Times.