Prisoners chipped under their skin with RFID

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.

Source: The Independent via

2 total comments on this postSubmit yours
  1. You are correct to see this impractical Government plan as another attempt at a Panopticon.

    Except, of course, that implantable RFID tags are vastly inferior to the existing combined mobile phone and GPS ankle tags, especially in terms of range, and tamper resistance.

    These ankle tags are already as small as they can be – which is still far too large to be implanted safely under the skin.

    However, even the existing trials of such mobile phone / GPS ankle tags have been a disaster, due to the failures of the privatised call centre monitoring systems and the financial and political disincentive to actually send prisoners who tamper with their tags back to prison.

    Mobile Phone and GPS satellite coverage of dense urban builtup environments is nowhere near 100 per cent, due to tall buildings, trees, rain or snow etc. Such radio reception black spots do not matter too much to normal, voluntary, mobile phone users, but they make it impossible to enforce a “prison without walls” on unwilling or pathologically driven prisoners.

    See: Spy Blog – Independent on Sunday – Ministry of (In)Justice plans to VeriChip and release prisoners and The Register – Tag-a-lag: Chip implants mooted for UK prisoners

  2. Hi, thanks for your insightful comment. You are right to point out that coverage is never 100% (and of course real pathological cases won’t be deterred by this). You bring up a very interesting and relevant point which I tried to hint at in the article: with each added layer of technological complexity, the chance of failure also increases. The question is: should we accept that such serious matters as the penitentiary system could (and eventually will) be compromised by the possibility of technological failure and/or ‘human factors’ (either willingly – crackers! – or unwillingly)?

Michiel de Lange

Michiel de Lange (1976) is an Assistant Professor in New Media Studies at Utrecht University, researching mobile media and urban culture and identity. He is the co-founder of The Mobile City, an independent research group founded in 2007 that investigates the influence of digital media technologies on urban life and the implications for urban design and policy. Michiel is trained as a cultural anthropologist, and holds a PhD in philosophy (2010) with a dissertation about mobile media technologies and urban identities. He collaborated in a locative media art & science project ( He worked for  Kennisland, a Dutch think-tank that aims to strengthen the knowledge-based society. Here he worked on several projects at the intersection of ICTs and the city, e.g. co-organizing the Creative Capital conference. He also volunteered and worked for Cybersoek, a computer neighborhood center in Amsterdam. He is advisor e-culture at Mediafonds.
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