Commentary


Satellites Now Monitor Us, Not Missles


by John W. Whitehead
April 19, 1999

Like animals tagged and tracked in the wild, prison parolees are now being tagged with a tracking bracelet. The bracelet is monitored by a satellite that watches their every move.

Currently nine states, including Minnesota, Florida and Pennsylvania, use these portable tracking devices to monitor the whereabouts and activities of approximately 150 parolees. The offenders wear a nonremovable bracelet containing the tracking device. The bracelet sends a continuous signal to a "Personal Tracking Unit" (PTU), which "resembles a walkie-talkie" that is carried by or kept near the offender. Satellites, formerly used to track nuclear missiles, transmit information detailing the offender's travels from the PTU to a monitoring center. If the offender tries to remove the bracelet, strays more than 50 feet from the PTU or enters a restricted zone, the monitoring center is alerted.

Once released from prison, the parolee subjected to the tracking system enters a more intrusive kind of prison in which satellites monitor every move, acting as an electronic warden. Different zones or areas considered off-limits to the parolee can be programmed into the tracking device. Anytime an offender enters a restricted or prohibited area, the PTU sends an alarm to the monitoring center which notifies the local authorities immediately. For instance, a tracking device worn by a convicted drug dealer could be programmed to trigger an alarm if the offender visits a park or street notorious for heavy drug traffic.

Proponents of the PTU claim that it is a cost-effective method of dealing with our nation's criminal population. Unfortunately, they have overlooked the potential-perhaps inevitable-abuse inherent in this Orwellian tracking device. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, there are an estimated 1.6 million inmates incarcerated within the United States. This staggering number is expected to more than double by the year 2005. As a result of the growing number of inmates, our nation's prisons and jails are overcrowded. This will force the early release of many criminals who have traditionally been placed under house arrest and electronically monitored within their homes.

The problem with electronic house-arrest devices, however, is their inability to monitor the offenders when they are outside of the home. But with satellites and tracking devices, not only can the parolees be tracked to and from work, their whereabouts can be established and monitored 24 hours a day. The economic cost of the tracking device is about $12.50 per parolee per day, versus $40 to incarcerate an inmate for a day.

The human cost, however, will most likely be our freedom and autonomy which is endangered by the very real potential of satellite control. "You could end up with the majority of the population under some kind of surveillance by the government," warns Georgetown University Law Professor Paul Rothstein, who recognizes this technology's "potential for creating a monster."

Once this tracking device has been implemented and accepted for use on former inmates, it will undoubtedly be justified for use on other segments of the population. For example, teens may be forced to wear tracking bracelets so they can be monitored for curfew. Employers could mandate that employees wear them as a means of "clocking in." Even suspicious spouses may use them to monitor each others' whereabouts.

As the threat to our personal freedom and autonomy increases, the actual size of the tracking devices themselves is decreasing. Former Florida governor and "U.S. drug czar" Bob Martinez predicts that the Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) tracking devices currently being tested in Florida will be reduced in size and contained in one small ankle bracelet. The most frightening tracking options on the horizon include implanting or injecting tracking microchips under the skin. This will allow the person to be monitored via satellite with an accuracy of less than 15 feet.

Like other well-intended inventions that have been misused and abused, this advanced technology will not be restricted to its initial use of tracking former felons. Rather than tracking former criminals, they have the potential of inevitably being used to track "us."
ABOUT JOHN W. WHITEHEAD

Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. His new book Battlefield America: The War on the American People (SelectBooks, 2015) is available online at www.amazon.com. Whitehead can be contacted at johnw@rutherford.org.

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