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Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Privacy Concerns and GPS Tracking of Offenders

Professor Berman gave a nice shout out to the Stockycat blog yesterday. In doing so, he got me thinking about the privacy implications of the increasing use of GPS devices for offenders, and a recent quote from David Fathi, ACLU staff council for the organization's National Prison Project caught my eye:

"To the extent that GPS surveillance is used as an alternative to incarceration for non-violent or first-time offenders, (it) is certainly a positive thing. The ACLU welcomes any reasonable steps to reduce our country's over-reliance on incarceration, which has given (the United States) the highest incarceration rate in the world."

A number of private companies are pushing this service for state and local governments. A recent piece in The Atlantic provides some nice details and descriptions for those interested.

Most systems track the location, direction and speed of the offender, can require the offender to be at home during certain hours, and will notify law enforcement of violations. One of the main benefits, besides reduced costs for government, seems to be that the systems can allow offenders to go to work or school while under supervision. When I was a prosecutor, the system was used primarily as a condition of bond during pre-trial release. It was especially helpful at providing protection for victims of violent crimes, as law enforcement could be alerted if the monitored person approached the victim's home or workplace.

The issue that has not been addressed is what is done with all of the data collected on offenders. Much of the data is stored by private companies. Offenders have a reduced expectation of privacy, but, still, the data collected by the companies and government can reveal a lot about a person – medical facts, religious and political orientation, affairs, etc . . .

I have written about the implications of warrantless police tracking elsewhere.

My quick look through news articles on this issue hasn't found much of a focus on protecting the tracking data maintained as a result of the use of GPS devices on offenders. One blogger at Forbes picked up on the surveillance as "creepy," but concluded, as many presume, that offenders might prefer the surveillance to incarceration. The blogger also suggested an iPhone app to monitor all offenders on GOPS tracking in your area. The privacy implications of being able to track your neighbor 24-7 just because he/she is on probation needs to be explored before we go down that route.

Is anyone aware of research or others expressing this concern? Did the ACLU jump the gun by supporting this system? I think this is an interesting topic for more work and thought.

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