Despite these constraints, GPS-enabled tracking systems stand to promote public safety. In this regard, Schwabe and his associates report, “Better technology for offender tracking has the potential to increase public safety by making information on offenders easier to share and utilize” (2001, p. 23). These types of surveillance systems, though, introduce new privacy concerns, even for offenders, given the fundamental constitutional rights that are involved. As Schwabe et al. emphasize, “It should be noted, however, that such systems raise many of the same civil liberties issues discussed above vis-a-vis video surveillance. As a result, they represent another case where the use of a technology by law enforcement must be balanced against individual rights and the resulting (potentially conflicting) public perceptions of the activity” (Schwabe et al., 2001, p. 23). While the debate over civil liberties vs. public safety continues, the use of GPS-enabled tracking devices continues to increase in jurisdictions across the country.
One company that has been in the vanguard of developing GIS-equipped offender tracking products is Quest Guard, whose offerings are representative of the devices that are currently being used. Their promotional literature notes that the TrackerPAL combines miniaturized cellular and global positioning system (GPS) technologies into a small patented and proprietary device backed by a 24/7 Offender Monitoring Center (TM) and supported by a robust GIS database. As a result, the TrackerPAL solution will automatically track and monitor the location of serious offenders in real-time while also providing supervising officers round-the-clock cellular communications capabilities for probationers, parolees, and offenders. The TrackPal GPS Offender device is illustrated in Figure 1 below.
Figure 1. TrackerPAL GPS Offender
The company cites the following attributes of its TrackerPAL solution:
1. Active, single-unit tracking device;
2. Two/three way voice communication (recorded and archived);
3. 24/7/365 Monitoring Center
4. Rechargeable Removable Battery (24+ hours external / 1.5 hours internal)
5. Multi-Functional Alarm Capabilities (Exclusion/Inclusion/Proximity/Tamper/Strap/Battery)
6. “Store and Forward” Data Capabilities
7. Secure, Web-Based Software
The company also reports that it provides law enforcement authorities with 24-hour technical support, as well as maintaining its own national monitoring center for tracking offender-equipped tracking devices. The company enthuses that, “This center is specifically designed to monitor and track in real-time. The PAL Monitoring center is the most advanced in the world. Our Monitoring Center is specifically designed to monitor in real — time. No other company offers this advanced or diverse level of tracking capability!” (Guard Quest, 2011, para. 4). Such hyperbolic marketing rhetoric aside, it should be noted that some offenders have succeeded in defeating and escaping from these devices and Cassel (2008) suggests that they need to be fine-tuned to be more reliable and efficient.
Current and Future Trends
In the science-fiction motion picture, “Demolition Man” starring Sylvester Stallone, everyone is equipped with a tracking chip embedded under their skin, making tracking easy and ubiquitous. While this futuristic eventuality may sound scary from a civil liberties perspective (and it is), the use of radio frequency identification (RFID) tags for such applications is becoming increasingly commonplace for livestock and pets, and some humans have even voluntarily had such tags physically embedded for experimental and personal reasons. It is not too much of a stretch of the imagination to envision an Orwellian country where the benefits of using these technologies for law enforcement outweigh the privacy and civil liberties issues that are involved. In fact, these trends can be discerned from current legislation such as the Pam Lychner Sex Offender Tracking and Identification Act of 1996. This act mandates that the U.S. Attorney General develop and maintain a national sex offender database and requires the FBI to verify sex offenders addresses on a regular basis (Rickart, 2010). Likewise, law enforcement authorities in the United States are compiling growing databases of DNA samples and it is reasonable to suggest that these trends will continue into the foreseeable future until the point is reached where everyones identity and whereabouts will be common knowledge and privacy and anonymity are things of the past.
The research showed that offender tracking systems have been used for the past several decades because they represent a cost-effective and viable alternative to incarceration for some offenders. These systems can also be used to ensure that parolees and probationers are complying with the terms of their release.
Two traditional methods that have been widely used and remain in use in many parts of the country involve physical visitations to offenders residences to verify their presence, and telephonic and television approaches where law enforcement authorities can monitor the physical presence of offenders in their homes remotely. A superior alternative, GPS-enabled tracking devices that are worn by offenders, has become increasingly popular in recent years based on its ability to automatically perform these functions. The research also showed that these trends in monitoring, taken to their extreme, will inevitably diminish American civil liberties. Assuming that these extremes are avoided, though, GPS-enabled tracking devices appear to be a valuable law enforcement tool that can help reduce overcrowding in prisons and make more effective use of law enforcement resources that are by definition scarce.
Cassel, D. (2008). Pretrial and preventive detention of suspected terrorists: Options and constraints under international law. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, 98(3),
Author is Professor of Law; Director, Center for Civil and Human Rights, Notre Dame Law School who provides a timely overview of detention approaches used for foreign nationals who have been convicted of terrorist activities. Authors observation concerning the effectiveness of GPS-enabled tracking devices was a valuable contribution to the goals of this paper.
Lindsey, J.M. (1999). Techniques in human geography. London: Routledge.
Author is a manager of information systems who provides a comparison of different GIS applications in the United States and the United Kingdom. In addition, author presents useful definitions of GIS and notes the fundamental differences in focus of these definitions, with some focusing on the technological aspects while other are focused on how and why these systems are used.
Mclaren, H. (2004, October). Chatham-Kents community portal. Public Management, 86(9), 32-
Author is community coordinator for online services who describes an integrated GIS approach being used in the UK that enables users to readily locate government services and community activities. The integrated system also includes online registration and facilities browsing services as well as a calendar of community events.
GPS: Offender Tracking – Alternatives to Incarceration. (2011). Quest Guard. Retrieved from http://www.questguard.com/GPS-Tracking-Solutions_GPS-Alternatives-to-Incarceration.html.
Vendor emphasizes the explosive growth in incarceration rates which manufactures a wide range of high-tech devices, including breathalyzers that can be mounted in offenders vehicles to ensure they have not been drinking as well as GPS-enabled tracking devices. Vendor recommends its line of GPS-tracking solutions as viable alternatives for law enforcement agencies across the country.
Ponchillia, P.E., Mackenzie, N., Long, R.G., Denton-Smith, P. & Miley, P. (2007). Finding a target with an accessible global positioning system. Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness, 101(8), 479-481.
Authors are professors at the department of blind and low vision studies at Western Michigan University who analyze the effectiveness of global positioning systems in target location experiments. Authors also provide a useful description of global positioning systems that was valuable for the purposes of this paper.
Thomas, R.M. (1999). Classifying reactions to wrongdoing: Taxonomies of misdeeds, sanctions, and aims of sanctions. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
Author describes three main methods for behavior monitoring: (a) parole, (b) offender tracking and (c) offering rewards, together with an analysis of the respective strengths and weaknesses of each approach. On balance, author suggests that offender tracking represents a valuable law enforcement tool that can free up law enforcement resources for other purposes, but also emphasizes that the approach is not without its drawbacks, particularly the initial expense that is involved.
Rickert, J.T. (2010). Denying defendants the benefit of a reasonable doubt: Federal Rule of Evidence 609 and past sex crime convictions. Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology,
Author was a juris doctorate candidate at Northwestern University School of Law (May 2010) at the time of writing who describes the implications of Federal Rule of Evidence 609 for prosecuting and convicting sex offenders, and provides a list of recent federal sex offender registration laws and their major provisions that was useful to illustrate current trends in technology use by law enforcement authorities.
Schwabe, W., Davis, L.M. & Jackson, B.A. (2001). Challenges and choices for crime-fighting technology: Federal support of state and local law enforcement. Santa Monica: Rand.
Authors present the findings of studies of technology.