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West Australia To Track Sex Offenders with GPS

The government of West Australia has announced plans to follow Queensland in attaching GPS tracking devices to its sex offenders. Under this plan, sex offenders would be released into the community with anklets or bracelets equipped with GPS tracking technology. The tracking devices will monitor the individual’s movements, and can send alerts when leaving or entering specified zones. The policy eases the strain on over-crowded prison systems, and can hopefully act as a deterrent for repeat offenses. However, the announcement was met with some concern at the idea of releasing known sex offenders back into the community.

“Yes, it’s possible that it could increase the number of dangerous sex offenders that are released,” Terry Redman, WA Corrective Services Minister, told the Herald Sun. “But it’s also possible that we get a higher level of breach and hence people going back to the Supreme Court to face judgments about going back into prison … We really need to monitor how this goes.” The technology alerts the Corrective Services Department if the wearer tampers with or removes the device, or goes near a school or a victim’s home.

“Once we have this in place for dangerous sex offenders … I think there’s a lot of scope for it to be used for other people within that corrective services system that are a concern to the community,” Redman said. “We have women in Bandyup Women’s Prison now who have significant family responsibilities outside … Things like this GPS tracking, we may be able to have them maintaining links with their families where they’re not a risk to the community.”

Queensland has been tracking it’s sex offenders successfully for about a year. “Those states have clearly seen the benefit of that,” Redman explained. “Like all technology is never 100 percent perfect, it enhances significantly our capacity to monitor these people within our community.” He added that the department would need to wait for legislation to pass before any of West Australia’s offenders could be tracked. He expects legislation and tracking devices to be equipped in the next year.

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How is Modern Technology Changing Privacy?

The more law enforcement agencies and corporate advertisers learn about GPS and other types of tracking technology, the more often citizens feel like someone is watching them. Occasionally, a high-profile GPS case like the one decided by the Supreme Court recently brings these issues into the spotlight and gives us an idea of how the government plans to restrict or allow tracking.

GPS trackingAfter a hard-fought legal battle, the defendant in the Supreme Court GPS case, a man suspected to be a drug dealer, succeeded in demonstrating that police did not have the legal right to plant a GPS tracker on his vehicle without a warrant. Good news, right? The average citizen’s mind might automatically interpret this ruling as an across-the-board statement that authorities should not encroach on privacy rights without asking first.

Actually, the ramifications are far more narrow than that. A good example is Google’s recent decision to update its privacy policies, dramatically expanding its tracking of users’ activity. The Supreme Court GPS case says nothing about the legality of companies following the steps of citizens and even packaging and selling the resulting data for profit. In fact, the trend among web-based services like Google and Facebook has been to increase information gathering, not back off on it.

Many experts see a double standard in this situation. Why is it against the law for police to use GPS to follow a potentially dangerous suspect, but it is legal for Google to collect information about users’ activities (including children) and sell it to other companies so that they can target them with advertisements? After all, very few of us expect to be the target in a police sting, but advertising brings us headaches and dangers every day.

Judging from statements by spokesmen for these companies, their impression is that the general public doesn’t really mind this particular form of privacy invasion. They treat it in a very nonchalant manner, dismissing questions with the attitude that privacy, especially online, is a thing of the past. The lesson to be learned? Until another Supreme Court case examines these specific practices, those of us who still value our privacy might have to work a little harder to hang on to it.