Independent Idiocy

The Independent, a British newspaper, has written a pathetic article claiming prisoners will be chipped like dogs, and that the general population are next.
Published: January 18, 2008

Last Thursday, I got a call from a journalist at The Independent, a British newspaper.

“We’re doing an article on the British government using RFID to track prisoners,” the reporter explained. “I’ve been reading your Web site and trying to understand this technology because I’m new to it. I guess they want to implant active RFID tags in the prisoners.”

“Good, god, no,” I replied. “They wouldn’t be doing that.”


“No. You would not want to cut someone open and put an active RFID tag with a lithium battery inside them.”

I asked if the government was looking to tag prisoners within a prison, or when they are let out. He said the tagging would take place after they were let out. I explained that I would be very surprised if they were actually planning to use RFID because it’s a short range technology, and that it wouldn’t be very cost-effective to install readers every 15 feet or so across the entire country. I suggested that maybe a home-confinement program was planned, in which officials would tag prisoners and confirm that they were within their home.

“No,” he said, “they want to replace the ankle braces prisoners now wear, which use GPS.”

We talked for a little while longer. The person I was speaking to wasn’t writing the article—he was helping out the newspaper’s White Hall editor, who had learned that ministers wanted to reduce crowding in jails and planned to use RFID as a way of expanding the release program. They wanted to implant tiny chips like the ones used to identify—not track—pets that get lost. I said that they needed to do a little more research because RFID is not a feasible solution (unless you want to know which prisoners show up at the local animal shelter).

Well, the article came out on Sunday, and apparently either the ministers are very confused about technology, or the folks at the Independentare—or both. The article, entitled Prisoners ‘to be chipped like dogs’, makes it clear the reporter had no understanding of RFID, didn’t care to listen to the person I spoke to and didn’t bother to check facts or do any additional research to make sure the article could say something intelligent.

The article says, “amid concerns about the security of existing tagging systems and prison overcrowding, the Ministry of Justice [MOJ] is investigating the use of satellite and radio-wave technology to monitor criminals.”

Apparently, prisoners released from jail with GPS ankle bracelets ditch the bracelets to avoid being monitored. So the MOJ, or some people within it, want to implant RFID tags under the skin of prisoners to track them. It’s not clear whether the MOJ thinks this can be done via satellites (the transponders have a read range measured in inches), or whether it has something else in mind. The article does mention home confinement, but doesn’t go into any detail. (Who needs details when you have a headline like “Prisoners ‘to be chipped like dogs’?”)

The Independent has a subhead in the story that reads, “The case against: ‘The rest of us could be next.'” It then raises some of the old, tired “spychips” nonsense, but it never really attempts to make the case that “we’re” next. All in all, this story is nothing but drivel.

Interestingly, The Independent did use one bit of information I gave the caller, but it even got that wrong: I explained that a few prisons in the United States use a tamper-proof wristband containing an active tag to track inmates within prisons, and that the system can be used, for instance, to make sure rival gangs don’t congregate close to one another. The Independent, however, said this system used implants—which, of course, is wrong and would be completely ineffective anyway.

I oppose RFID implants in humans, because they are unnecessary and don’t provide a useful solution to any real problem, including tracking prisoners. Note to ministers: Anyone who escapes tracking with a GPS bracelet is not going to be stopped by a transponder with a 1-foot read range. These glass-encapsulated transponders can be dug out from under the skin by anyone unwilling to be tracked.

These kinds of articles used to concern me, because they can turn people off of RFID. However, I think many people are more knowledgeable now, and if they understand even a little bit about RFID technology, they are laughing at the stupidity of The Independent article. But if the folks at the MOJ are really as confused as The Independent makes them out to be, then we have a real problem.