Who will benefit from more GPS surveillance?

Despite claims of its potential to protect us from serious crime, we run risks if we get hooked on mass GPS tracking, argues Catherine Heard

By: 
Catherine Heard
Date: 
Wednesday, 01 July, 2015

Vera Baird, QC, Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) for Northumbria, has announced that GPS tracking of domestic violence perpetrators is one of the main strands of her Police and Crime Plan. Ms Baird is funding a pilot scheme enabling the Northumbria force to monitor the movements of domestic abuse perpetrators with the latest satellite technology.

The Northumbria scheme will allow victims to create alerts when the wearer is nearby. The company that supplies the tracking equipment can then alert police communications centres and action can be taken to protect individuals at risk. The devices can also be used to alert their wearers if they approach a pre-fixed exclusion zone (perhaps a school or someone’s home), enabling them to avoid doing so, or letting the police take action if they do.

Ms Baird is one of several PCCs to see this technology as a way of protecting victims and preventing crime.  Other PCCs, as well as companies such as Capita, G4S, Serco and Buddi, have lobbied for its wider use. That would mean changing it from a voluntary scheme (requiring the wearer’s consent) to a compulsory one.

Successful bidders for the next generation of tracking equipment stand to make huge gains if this happens. Plans were confirmed by Andrew Selous last August to expand the use of GPS tracking to a staggeringly high 75,000 new users per year.

Clearly there are potential benefits from tracking in the domestic abuse situations Ms Baird has focused on, so long as it is used proportionately and with the informed consent of the tracked person. But it can’t take the place of support and advice from a trained probation professional, for those at risk of committing abuse. Nor can giving a tracking device to someone at risk of domestic violence replace the need to challenge it at every level, and support those who experience it.

Under Transforming Rehabilitation we are seeing rapidly rising probation staff caseloads and falling staff numbers. Resources for charities working to tackle domestic violence have also been cut.

Companies that end up cornering the market for GPS tracking technology could also choose to cut costs by reducing headcount. Our ever greater reliance on technology and private enterprise delivery, in place of skilled probation staff and support services, could leave us vulnerable, heavily dependent on companies whose primary driver will always be commercial interest. Explain that to a victim of stalking or domestic violence who sends an alert that fails to reach her local police force in time.

Mass compulsory surveillance of tens of thousands of people would create a system of state control that the Stasi would have been proud of. It is intrusive and costly. It will place vast amounts of private data into the hands of a few companies largely shielded from government or public scrutiny. 

In this as in so many other areas, we are sleepwalking into a US-style system of punishment and supervision. We should not do so without understanding the risks. Around half of all inmates in US jails are there for breach of probation, parole or licence conditions. This can happen when a tagged or tracked person fails to meet their monthly payments for using the device. It is not hard to imagine the current government promoting similar policies.

Catherine Heard, Research and Policy Associate, Centre for Crime and Justice Studies


Under our Alternatives to Custody in Europe project, we analyse the use of electronic monitoring in the UK in recent years. Watch the footage from our recent national workshop at which this was discussed.