Civil Liberties

Lifetime Commitment

Surveillance in the Sunshine State.


In April Florida Gov. Jeb Bush signed a bill designed to keep child molesters within the state of Florida. The Jessica Lunsford Act, named for a murdered 9-year-old girl, mandates that after molesters are released from prison they be fitted with tracking devices and monitored 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for the rest of their lives.

The Florida law is just the latest twist in law enforcement's love affair with global positioning systems (GPS). Pilot GPS projects are popping up in jurisdictions across the country, and more than 30 states are now slapping anklets on paroled sex offenders.

Lifetime tracking, with all its Orwellian implications, seems to be the sort of thing that would send civil libertarians running to the nearest courtroom. Yet the American Civil Liberties Union has expressed support for the use of GPS tracking as a way to extend more liberty to inmates.

"The ACLU welcomes any reasonable steps to reduce our country's over-reliance on incarceration," David Falthi, staff council for the organization's National Prison Project, explained to Wired News. By keeping criminals out of prison, he argues, GPS lets offenders reintegrate themselves into society without getting lost in it. The systems also save states more than a little cash: Tracking criminals costs around $12 per individual per day, which doesn't come close to the cost of warehousing and feeding the same offenders.

Still, privacy advocates have doubts that law enforcement will be able to contain its affection for 'round-the-clock shadowing. Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, notes that DNA collection started as a strategy for nabbing sex offenders before it became standard crime-fighting practice.

"It's important to keep in mind that GPS tracking is going to become very attractive to law enforcement," he says, "We need to consider to what extent the government could extend this requirement to other categories of people."

That's a process that has already started, as anklet-wearing juvenile offenders in Mississippi, pre-trial suspects in Florida, and Martha Stewart can attest.?