net.wars: Satellite days

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 27 September 2002

Look, you're thinking about this all wrong. The "you" in that sentence is the Conservative Party.

Wendy M Grossman

I would never tell you folks you were wrong. I'm talking, of course, about Shadow Home Secretary Oliver Letwin's proposals last week for satellite tracking of pedophiles. Apparently, this is to reassure the public.

Now, I may be atypical of the general population, but if my daughter were missing, I'm not sure that I'd find it very comforting to know that the police could, at the drop of an official request, watch all the known pedophiles move around the nation on a map. (I imagine this with little dots of light you'd click on to find out who you were watching, but of course I have no idea how it would actually look). What I'd want is to know where my daughter was and whether she was safe.

So clearly the thing to do is to track all the children. Today, we'd have to band them all with heavy bracelets, but within a decade or so we could have a little Kevin Warwick-style chip implanted at birth with a unique identifier. I mean, if the satellites are there, why limit their use to a few hundred people? And it could be so useful. No wondering where your kid is if the school calls and says he's playing hookey. No more nationwide angst-fests over missing children. Why should we balk at giving our children total surveillance - I mean, full protection? If we're going to build an infrastructure to track humans, we might as well get the full benefit.

I have the feeling you're about to say that it will take an impossible number of law enforcement personnel to watch the locations of all those children. Well, first of all, electronic monitoring is supplied by a Securicor, a US-based private company. Secondly, what with the Internet and all, there's an entire planet full of volunteers out there ready and willing to watch over the Net. You could do a whole anonymous thing with number coding, so the volunteer will never know if he's watching a vulnerable five-year-old straying alone into a forest or a manic bodybuilder teen with a boombox, a gunning motor, and a gang of 22-year-old friends.

And then you get a coming-of-age ritual - removing the tracker implant - thrown in as a side benefit. What 18-year-old (or maybe 21-year-old) wouldn't welcome another chance for presents? Plus - and I'll bet the Conservatives have thought of this already - the really good part is that by the time this generation of kids has been moving around under an implant their whole lives a load of them will be so used to it that they won't want to give it up. Two, three generations, tops, and the whole country will be on the tracking system. You could call it a long-term strategy in case the "entitlement cards" don't take. (Which reminds me: have you sent in your response to the consultation paper yet?)

My guess is that the current generation of kids, when they come to have children, will find it less unacceptable than older generations would have because they've large grown up carrying prototype tracking devices. I mean mobile phones. To them, it may seem weird not to be able to contact their child at any time.

It's not often you see a politican recommend something on the grounds that "it's been tried in Florida" (if Carl Hiaasen isn't busy, I'd really like to know how that's going). Florida is also, by the way, one of a few US states that in 1999 enacted a law allowing convicted sex abuse offenders to be committed to mental institutions when their prison sentences end. Early British experiments with tagging didn't look too promising.

A smart would-be child abuser who hacks off the electronic tag falls off the tracking system: police only know where he was when he dropped it, not where he is now. So arguably we're talking about yet another system that offers a false sense of security and plays on a widespread fear to wedge the way open toward greater surveillance. After all, if these offenders are a permanent danger to society, it would surely be more logical to change the law governing the length of sentence they may be required to serve.

But the really sad cost of this kind of thinking, which rarely gets discussed, is the fear and alienation innocent men feel as a result. Many men now consider showing affection to their children when alone with them in public or walking alone past a school too big a risk to take in the current climate. There is something seriously wrong when an ordinary man thinks helping a distraught, lost child is too dangerous.

The problem is that life is not safe, and no amount of invasive technologies will make it so. In a lengthy article about Operation Candyman in the current edition of Wired , writer Steve Silberman notes (besides a major inaccuracy on the part of the FBI) that 86 percent of child sexual abuse cases are committed by a family member or someone the child already knows. The BBC says the Internet, the cause of so much dark fear in the UK press, may have figured in 12 cases in the last two years. The hell with it. We'd better just track everyone. Wouldn't you like to know what your MP is really up to?

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).