Under the sinister heading “Prisoners ‘to be chipped like dogs'”, The Independent has a well-balanced article about a plan issued by – amongst others – the British Ministry of Justice to put RFID chips under the skin of prisoners. The plan is meant to lessen the burden on the overcrowded penitentiary system in the UK. This idea goes one step beyond the already exiting ankle bracelet:
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.
There are even proposals to link this system to GPS satellite tracking and tracing:
A senior Ministry of Justice official last night confirmed that the department hoped to go even further, by extending the geographical range of the internal chips through a link-up with satellite-tracking similar to the system used to trace stolen vehicles. “All the options are on the table, and this is one we would like to pursue,” the source added.
Civil rights movements are outraged and call this “degrading”. Another critique by a rehabilitation worker is voiced in similarly terms underlining the de-humanizing effect:
This is the sort of daft idea that comes up from the department every now and then, but tagging people in the same way we tag our pets cannot be the way ahead. Treating people like pieces of meat does not seem to represent an improvement in the system to me.”
Apart from several implementation issues (what if such a chip could be cracked the way the Dutch public transport card was cracked just a few days ago?), a number of considerations rise. First this plan of course strongly smells of Foucaults’ “panopticon“. Foucault describes how the European justice system changed from corporeal punishments to prison architectures that create self-control. Prisons were built in a round shape that made prisoners in the periphery visible to surveillance guards in the center at all times. As the prisoner knew he could be seen at all times, he would subject himself to the authority of the penal system.
So what about under the skin RFID chips? Is this a new panopticon, a system that relies more on knowing that you are watched and self-control that on actual surveillance and punishment? Can we consider such surveillance networks new ‘architectures of control’? But what then remains of the classical brick and mortar architecture? This kind of punishment in fact combines both types: corporeal and the panopticon. Not only is the convict watched all the time and knows he is being watched [sorry, can’t help using the masculine form in this context…], again the body is made into the locus of the punishment. Perhaps this is even more distressing than the aspect of ubiquitous surveillance, which can be done with a bracelet?
And what about the sense of security amongst the public? Would they feel saver now convicts are traceable rather than locked up? And what about all kinds of other tracing mechanism that already exist today, or are on the verge of breakthrough, e.g. mobility and the implementation of RFID chips in public transport and highway toll roads? Every move could theoretically be tracked, saved, and traced back to a unique number (and even individuals). Such questions lead to the the theme of the ‘risk society’ (Ulrich Beck, Anthony Giddens) and the way risk are being made manageable by new technologies, yet at the same time these new technologies increase the sense of complexity of our society, and increase our unease with technological solutions.
Another consideration is about the words used in criticisms, invariably stressing de-humanizing aspects. There is quite some similarity with discussions about new technologies, e.g. CCTV, RFID in public transport. “But then they know where you are” is the often heart expression of the fear of no longer being able (and having the right) to be unknown to others, including government and companies. Technologies that are so linked up with a human individual are bound to evoke strong emotions about freedom and being controlled. This underlines that we (the general public, lay audience; but also various societal groups) tend to immediately take on an ethical stance (in the west at least) towards the introduction of new technologies. I guess every discussion about locative/ubiquitous/ambient/pervasive technologies will have to take this fact into account.