According to one of the U.K. newspapers, the government is thinking about chipping prisoners in order to track them, as they (sort of) do at the moment with ankle bracelets…

But, instead of being contained in bracelets worn around the ankle, the tiny chips would be surgically inserted under the skin of offenders in the community, to help enforce home curfews. The radio frequency identification (RFID) tags, as long as two grains of rice, are able to carry scanable personal information about individuals, including their identities, address and offending record.

[From Prisoners ‘to be chipped like dogs’ – Independent Online Edition > UK Politics]

They are talking about Verichips here, but a moment’s reflection leads me to the conclusion that the story either cannot be true at all or can only have been leaked to the newspaper by someone who hasn’t the slightest understanding of RFID technology or, for that matter, technology in general. Verichips store only a 16-digit number and they are not re-writable: they can’t store addresses or anything else. But then none of the people in the article seem particularly au fait with the either the technology or its risks:

Consumer privacy expert Liz McIntyre said a colleague had already proved he could “clone” a chip. “He can bump into a chipped person and siphon the chip’s unique signal in a matter of seconds,” she said.

When she says “siphon the chip’s unique signal”, she of course means “read the chip ID as per the specification”. Reading the ID number off of the chip is no different to reading it off of the patients bracelet. It’s just a number. I’m not waving away perfectly valid privacy concerns here. I’m just pointing out that the fact of the matter is that there is no point implanting a chip under the skin of someone who doesn’t want to co-operate. They will simply take it out, or swap it with another chip. The technology has absolutely nothing to offer in this case.

The article goes on to talk about satellite tracking and so forth, fantasising about being able to keep paedophiles away from schools by remote control, that kind of thing (any pervert worth his or her salt would get themselves another chip ASAP). What this reveals is, I think, yet another example of both the government and commentators operating in a technological vacuum, where policy is formulated on the basis of scientific principles derived from Hollywood movies. As I’ve said more than once before, it’s hard explaining PKI to a PPE.

Sorry if that sounds flippant, but It bothers me to keep on pointing to articles about people not understanding identity technology. As well all understand, simply stirring in some technology does not help when the characteristics and limitations are not properly understood. Look at the ankle tags that the superchips are supposed to replace. Some figures from Scotland, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, show that in the year 2005-06, there were 285 incidents where the tags failed. Over that period, there were 987 tagging orders issued. So, in other words, about a third of the tagging orders were subverted by the technology failing. The figures did not include the additional 315 cases where the straps holding the tags on offenders were tampered with. In case you think that this sort of thing doesn’t matter, the article mentions that

In October 2005, Callum Evans hacked John Hatfield, 23, to death outside his Glasgow home while Evans was wearing an electronic tag following a conviction for assault and robbery. The tag had been wrongly set, meaning it did not alert the authorities when Evans left his home. Last year Evans received a 20-year jail sentence. Judge Lord Hardie criticised the tagging system for its potential to give offenders a false alibi. Evans had said he was tagged and had been in his house at the time of the killing, but he was caught on CCTV. Hardie said that had there been no more evidence linking Evans to the killing, the faulty tag could have been used to support an alibi.

As always, I’m not interested in making a political point here, but I do want to continue to inform the discussion about the relationship between identity, technology and government. We need realism and understanding from the policy makers and from the journalists.

These opinions are my own (I think) and presented solely in my capacity as an interested member of the general public [posted with ecto]

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