Category Archives: Surveillance Technology

‘Prisoners on parole to be fitted with alcohol detector tags’

Quite puzzled by an article in The Sunday Times today with the headline

‘Prisoners on parole to be fitted with alcohol detector tags’

This is certainly news to me and quite possibly to the rest of the electronic monitoring community.

The article starts off stating that ‘Criminals will be banned from drinking alcohol when they are released from prison’. However, the article neglects to say how this will be accomplished. Present legislation has allowed Transdermal Alcohol Monitoring tags (TAMs) to be piloted in London by the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime. These are not GPS enabled as the article suggests nor are they currently authorised for use as part of parole supervision or indeed as part of supervision for those serving sentences of less than 12 months.

We do know that the government plans to expand the use of electronic monitoring in a bid to reduce the prison population but largely due to incompetence and changing the goal posts/obligations for suppliers etc the roll out of the long awaited GPS tags has been delayed and delayed. We may still have to wait until much later in the year until anyone other than MoJ staff are actually fitted with one.

The article suggests that tomorrow UK PM David Cameron will announce the authorisation of something that does not currently exist ie a GPS enabled alcohol monitoring tag to be used with groups of offenders ie Parolees for which legislation does not currently exist to make wearing these tags a condition of their licence. It therefore beggars belief that this is what Cameron will do and if he does announce this it is highly unlikely he will be able to deliver it anytime soon.

Even if everything was in place to roll out a system that as the article suggests would mean that ‘Thousands of prisoners will be fitted with tags and told to stay away from drink as part of the terms of parole’ how is that even remotely practical to enforce? Even monitoring 111 people through an 18 month pilot took a large number of dedicated people putting in some very hard work indeed to produce ‘proof of concept’. A small scale pilot to produce proof of concept is a long way from a national roll out and expansion to totally different groups of offenders.

Such a measure would not be about treatment or rehabilitation but be about restriction of liberty and punishment. It would impact disproportionately on the poor and persons with particular lifestyles whether or not alcohol had featured in their offending. The alcohol monitoring tags are larger and hence more visible than standard RFID tags and, for instance, you would have difficulty wearing work boots (or for women in particular to wear work boots or calf length boots) and you cannot take a bath with one on. This may well make getting a job and even undertaking work safely such as labouring or indeed getting clean afterwards a lot more challenging.

During the pilot suitability for the tags was carefully assessed and most of those found suitable were people who had committed drink drive offences. They are not suitable for those who are alcohol dependent.

There is also mention in the same article of ‘Smart Tags’ that are lauded as a means to ‘reduce the number of babies born and raised behind bars’. I am at a loss to know how this will be achieved. Are male and female offenders to be tracked like tagged wild animals in a breeding project and somehow kept apart to prevent sexual relations taking place?

The article also mentions the use of mobile phones in prisons that I have always thought is a security issue as unmonitored calls related to illicit activity are the problem. The suggested solution is for mobile phone companies to cut off their signal to prisons. This is technically very problematic and would almost certainly mean that prisons and the area surrounding prisons would become mobile phone dead zones. This would be very inconvenient for anyone living near a prison and could itself cause a security risk with communications limited to landlines alone.

I await Cameron’s speech and hope it makes more sense than this article does.

What’s all the fuss about global navigation satellite systems?

The ability to know your exact location and also the precise time at that location has become increasingly important to those who rely on a range of technologies that in turn rely on satellite systems to facilitate navigation, monitoring, and tracking. For example commercial operations are increasingly reliant on satellite aided systems to ensure that goods get to where they are supposed to. When the U.S. Air Force successfully launched new GPS satellites via an Atlas V rocket this was reported extensively in China.(1) China happens to be one of several countries that is now vying for new business in this important area.

However, it is  perhaps prudent to consider the fact that the US GPS network, that most of us increasingly rely on for navigation, is primarily a military system owned and developed by the US Air Force and paid for by the Pentagon and was not originally conceived as having a civilian role. It is one of the systems that that is known to be used to assist military hardware, such as UAVs, to pinpoint targets. The civilian signal that most of us use with our SATNAVS and increasingly on our smartphones is freely accessible to anyone with suitable equipment but that service can just as easily be reduced or taken away. the loss of this service might mean I am embarrassed to arrive 10 minutes late for a meeting until I can find the information I need via an electronic street map but to a motorcycle paramedic on the way to the scene of an accident the service can mean the difference between life and death.

It is realised that there has been an exponential increase in reliance on the global positioning system to work reliably and in recent years the Pentagon have come under increasing pressure from the multi-agency National Space-Based Positioning Navigation and Timing (PNT) Advisory Board and others to agree that they will not reduce the accuracy, degrade, or switch off civilian access to the system. The main arguments are that to do so could potentially endanger life and disrupt commercial activities as this would have a global economic impact that is somewhat difficult to calculate but potentially catastrophic.   Although not life threatening to the persons concerned disruption of the service would also interfere with electronic monitoring systems such as those in security industries or those increasingly used in the criminal justice system to track offenders resulting in a loss of confidence in their use. Such systems have in any case only been viable since 2000 when, in a popular move, President Clinton ordered that the US military switch off selective availability (SA) thus substantially  increasing accuracy.

Analysts believe that it is highly unlikely that the GPS signal would be used to thwart threats to US or their allies national security as the fallout from such action would be potentially too unpredictable and harmful.  GPS however remains a potentially powerful weapon that continues to attract public interest not least as a tangible benefit resulting from a considerable investment in the space programme but also as a very real reminder of the US’s reach beyond its borders as a global power. Any hint therefore that the service might be used in a different way without the involement of democratic process is therefore of concern. President Bush, commenting on US GPS policy in 2004, said that the US would ‘improve capabilities to deny hostile use of [satnav], without unduly disrupting civil and commercial access to [GPS] outside an area of military operations, or for homeland security purposes…’ presenting the possibility that in certain circumstances SA might be used defensively or offensively to counter perceived ‘threats’. However, it would be naive to assume that those with hostile intent who are sophisticated enough to make effective use of GPS to achieve their aims would not also have access to fairly advanced technical resources that could be used to overcome any temporary limitations and quite possibly used against civilian populations by hostile groups seeking to cause disruption and gain publicity.

Not surprisingly other countries who have the necessary access to the technology to do so have been keen to develop their own systems. These countries are very clear that they do not want to rely too heavily on what is essentially a US military system that they realise could well be used strategically to disrupt the activities of others not acting in what the US may at any time to consider its interests (either military economic or political). The Russian military have developed GLONASS as have the military in China who have their own independent satellite navigation and positioning systems and a growing number of countries that prefer not to use the US system such as Pakistan, Thailand, China, Laos and Brunei use the Chinese system, for a variety of reasons, not just cost but also as a result of a web of treaties and understandings. It may be for example that one country’s military may well be wary of buying into a system that could well mean that the US can use this technology in combination with others in order to monitor and map over time the movements of their vehicles and personnel. They might suspect that the same system that is used to remotely to pilot drones towards selected targets could also be turned against them. The global navigation satellite systems can therefore be used.

The EU GALILEO global navigation satellite system (part funded by China) is a bit different from other systems as it is not only under full civilian control (we hope it will not be used to gather data on users without their knowledge) but also accurate to within a few centimeters whereas the US GPS network is only accurate within a few meters. The Galileo system is compatible with both the US and Russian systems but importantly it will enable a far wider range of applications, such as use with driverless cars, improved air traffic control systems, and in tests has proven more accurate than other systems that tend to struggle to maintain accuracy in urban areas. The EU system is even able to pinpoint the precise location of individuals within buildings if wearing suitable devices opening up new possibilities for those developing monitoring technologies.


Drones: Guardians or Menace to Privacy

In the past few years, the singular use of drones in conflict zones has dominated the news media. University of California-Berkeley researchers, however, are working on what they perceive as “good drones,” according to SF Weekly.

US Department of Homeland Security Built Domestic Surveillance Technology Into Predator Drones

‘The U.S. Department of Homeland Security has customized its Predator drones, originally built for overseas military operations, to carry out at-home surveillance tasks that have civil libertarians worried: identifying civilians carrying guns and tracking their cell phones, government documents show.’