Accuracy in Media

In the wake of the abduction and killing of a 9-year-old Florida girl by a convicted sex offender, law enforcement officials have been scrambling to reassess the strategies they use to protect the public from such heinous crimes. On March 20, the Journal-News newspaper in Hamilton, Ohio, reported that Butler County, Ohio, Commissioner Michael Fox is proposing a radical idea: implanting probationees with GPS microchips so that they “can be tracked and located immediately.” Fox, who’s been called a “maverick” politician, was reviving a long running campaign for electronically monitoring ex-cons on probation in Butler County, Ohio. Reporter Mary Lolli noted that Fox had earlier voiced support for electronic ankle or wrist bracelets but now he was taking his proposal further. “People have these GPS implants in their pets and-in some cases-in their children in the event they are lost or kidnapped,” the commissioner said in earnest, “I don’t see why the same can’t be done for probationees.”

Fox wants to implant not only sex offenders on court-ordered probation, but all probationees. Sheriff Richard K. Jones got into the act, telling media it would first take an act of the state legislature to give courts the authority to order such implanting. The Sheriff said he would support the sort of electronic monitoring that would deliver an electrical shock to an offender if he or she “is doing something in violation of their probation.”

The Middletown Journal weighed in the next day (March 30) with an editorial: “Knowledge, not gadgets, key to protecting potential victims.” The editorial said Fox had waded into murky waters. “Let’s be clear: we’re not losing sleep over guarding the rights of sex offenders and we believe the law enforcement community should be embracing and exploiting modern technology, but implanting government tracking chips in human beings against their will?” The editorial said that at the risk of sounding like an X-Files episode, “Do we really want government to begin inserting microchips into the necks of humans, in order to track their movements?” It added, “Will we soon find it acceptable to expand the list of implant candidates?”

The editorial was right when it stated such implantation raises serious legal, ethical and civil rights questions. But first it raises questions of factual accuracy. Why? Because there are no commercially available GPS implants in existence. The Florida company, Applied Digital Solutions (ADS), announced in December of 1999 that it had acquired the patent for a syringe-injectable GPS implant that was powered by muscle movement and could be remotely monitored. The location and movements of the host could be stored in a database for future reference, the company said. ADS recommended use of the technology for tracking felons and prisoners.

But it is now over five years since ADS made that announcement and they have yet to produce any proof of such a device. That doesn’t prevent the media from reporting on it at the instigation of the company every single year since the announcement was made. Each year, media reports the story as though it is brand-new. The company now claims it has a “prototype” device the size of a pacemaker, but no public demonstration has been made. In October of 2000 it also claimed it had a “prototype.” In summer of 2000 the firm announced it was “accelerating” development of the prototype. Which reminds us, in April of 2003 it announced it was “accelerating” development of the prototype. One wonders how slow things would progress at ADS if there were no constant “accelerating” going on.

Meanwhile, the company has since 2001 been hawking radio frequency identification (RFID) chips that are similar to what you’d find in a pet, and that can only be scanned from a few inches away. Because the company has also hawked the GPS implant idea, and spoken illogically of its RFID chips being an aid to prevent kidnapping, the two chips become conflated in the minds of reporters and now politicians. The endless talk has even led the prestigious Gartner technology analyst firm to create a new category of “Emergent Technologies:” the GPS implant. It seems that this implant is having an awfully hard time “emerging” into the market, though.

That being said, retired intelligence operative Ed Seibert told AIM that since 1995 the CIA has experimented with and used GPS implants of its own design which are quite dissimilar to what ADS had proposed. However, the politicians and media folks know nothing about those, and are in fact referring to Applied Digital’s announcements when they casually write of GPS implants. Seibert says the CIA would never support the implantation of civilians. He also suggested some of the CIA’s technology may have been stolen by China, and may eventually emerge in the U.S. in the commercial market. We may indeed have to address these issues in the future, but Butler County can relax for the time being.

The fact the media have never seen a GPS implant, or proof of one, didn’t prevent them from flooding the mediascape with stories of Fox’s bumbling intentions. The Dayton Daily News did a story on it, followed by an Associated Press story that got wide media play. The story appeared in Business Week Online, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, WCPO ABC Channel 9, Ohio, KDKA CBS 2 Pittsburgh, WKYC NBC Cleveland, the Akron Beacon Journal, NBC 5 Cincinnati, WCHS 8 in West Virginia, and the Cincinnati Post. The Justice Policy Institute also posted a story of Fox’s plan.

What media did get right is that technology can be a poor substitute for warning the public that a sex offender is living nearby. The CEO of one of the top firms selling electronic monitoring systems for probationees told AIM that their “24/7” tracking system actually isn’t monitored at all during the day. The belt pack is taken off at the end of the day, and the probationee places it in a “cradle.” Then the data downloads. In other words, it’s only helpful for prosecuting a crime after the fact. The CEO asked me not to report this. The Middletown Journal editorial hit the nail on the head: Fox and others “have smartly pitched the idea in the past as a way of controlling the number of county jail inmates and rapidly rising operating costs there.” As public officials are increasingly unable to provide answers for prison overcrowding, they will seek to calm public fears over early release of violent, dangerous felons by touting technology. But as the editorial stated, not even an implant would prevent violent crimes.

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