Satellite 'Big Brother' eyes parolees
Technology is same as that used to guide nuclear missiles
By Gary Fields, USA TODAY
Military satellites designed to guide nuclear missiles are being used to monitor prison parolees and probationers in a technological advance designed to reduce the
nation's skyrocketing prison population. But critics say it also raises the specter of an Orwellian future.
The ComTrak monitoring system uses 24 Defense Department satellites orbiting 12,500 miles above the Earth to track 100 people in nine states. The people under
surveillance range from sex offenders in Chicago to juvenile delinquents in New Jersey. The cost of monitoring each person is $12.50 per day.
It is a long way from a system originally designed by the Defense Department to help guide nuclear missiles. The Pentagon began leasing satellite time, allowing
others to use the satellites, after the Cold War ended. "It's bullets to plowshares,'' says Jack Lamb, president and CEO of Advanced Business Sciences Inc., the
Omaha-based company that developed the ComTrak system.
The system has three main components: a bracelet the size of a wristwatch, a 3-pound personal tracking unit that resembles a walkie-talkie, and the battery
charger/base that is kept at the monitored person's house and transmits information by telephone to a monitoring center. If the bracelet is broken or removed or the
wearer is more than 50 feet from the tracking unit, an alarm is sent to the monitoring center.
The system is programmed to set up zones where a person monitored can and cannot go, depending on the crime committed. For example, people with
drunken-driving convictions can be tracked to set off an alarm if they enter local bars. Exclusion zones for a sexual predator can include schools and parks in a
designated area. And an abusive husband can be tracked to ensure he stays clear of his wife's workplace, home or places she visits. When a person being
monitored enters an exclusion zone, the tracking unit sends an automatic alert to monitoring centers in Omaha. Law enforcement authorities are alerted within
At night, the tracker is placed in the charger, which downloads all of a person's movements that day -- right down to the precise route the person took to work --
and sends the record of movements to the monitoring center.
Lamb says the potential for growth is "phenomenal." There are nearly 4 million people under some form of supervision in the USA. Of those, only about 11,000 are
monitored electronically under the old system, which is unable to track a person's movements once he or she has left home. Some see the new system as a tool for
judges grappling with a prison and jail population of 1.8 million people at a cost of more than $40 per day for each inmate.
Percy Luney Jr., president of the National Judicial College at the University of Nevada, Reno, where judges receive training in such issues as alternative sentencing,
says the system "gives judges an option for keeping people out of jail and away from all the negative influences there. It's also a cost-saver for the taxpayer.''
Lamb says his system also is an improvement over older technology, which can tell only if those being monitored leave home during restricted hours. "The problem
with the old system is once they leave home, you have no idea where they are or what they are doing,'' Lamb says.
Others involved in the prison industry, from defense lawyers to probation and parole officers and judges, acknowledge that the advanced monitoring system has
potential. However, there are some concerns about how far the use of such surveillance will go.
Paul Rothstein, a law professor at Georgetown University, says the system has the potential "to change the face of law enforcement and incarceration." But he also
sees the "potential for creating a monster.''
Rothstein is concerned that the advances in technology could result in more and more people being subjected to electronic monitoring -- not just those on parole .
"You could end up with the majority of the population under some kind of surveillance by the government,'' he says.
Jack King, spokesman for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, says his organization supports the electronic monitoring. He sees it as especially
helpful in the case of someone who should be out on bail but is too destitute to pay it.
He says he is concerned about such technology being used to monitor people who have served their sentences and paid their debts to society.
"If it's to track someone who has done his full term, like a registered sex offender or a formerly dangerous felon, then the use of this technology becomes Orwellian
with all the dangers to all our freedoms that suggests,'' King says. "Who would they be tracking next?''