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GPS Ankle Monitors: Ethics of Technology and Law (Specials)

  • Category
    Ethics
  • Published
    19th Nov, 2023

Context:

Recently first time in India GPS ankle monitors were installed on an individual out on bail to track his movements. This raises multiple Questions of ethics.

Major Concern:  The faulty nature of the monitors can result in unintended consequences for accused persons. Besides, it would be highly imprudent to assume that the police in India are well-equipped to use this technology.

This brings to fore the ethical concerns regarding the Electronic Monitoring.

Background:

  • On November 5, a Special Court in Jammu granted bail to Ghulam Mohd Bhat who has been accused of terror financing under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, 1967 on the condition that Bhat wears a GPS tracker around his anklet.
  • With this order, the Jammu and Kashmir police became the first in the country to deploy a GPS-enabled, wearable tracking device to monitor and record the movement of an accused released on bail.

Conditions for Bail- Why?

Inspite of the norm “Bail over Jail”, certain conditions are put for the accused. Conditions imposed for bail usually are meant to ensure that those released refrain from contacting victims or witnesses, tamper or manipulate evidence or commit any further crimes.

As such, conditions often require them to stay in a certain geographic area or prohibit them from leaving the jurisdiction of the court without permission. Tracking movements, thus, is useful in checking compliance with such conditions and ostensibly GPS-enabled trackers are a crucial tool in doing so.

Key Questions and Concerns

  • Validity and reliability of the technology in use- Error proneness of Technology.
  • Capacity of Police to use high end Tech- Concerns regarding training and Capacity building of Police.
  • Legal issues and application of UAPA-
    • The concerns get even more heightened w.r.t. Indian Criminal Justice system as very little focus is on critical and corrective thinking along with tech enable-ness- Examples are plenty, forensics, cyber crime etc. The tech competence of police in India has come under question time and again.. Whether it is the appreciation of forensic evidence in courts, or the usage of GPS-enabled devices for monitoring accused persons, technology is perceived to be error-free and objective by most stakeholders in the criminal justice system including the law enforcement personnel and the judiciary.
    • The nature of rules, Laws and Court procedures make it difficult for the processing of such technology to act as support to the legal proceedings.

Limitations of Technology

  • Unhindered connection with sky and good communication networks are needed. They are available in urban areas but overall the challenges remain on this front.
  • Accuracy concerns of the GPS.
  • Other physical factors like Buildings, foliage, and weather conditions can lead to a poor quality of signals.
  • Dependency on batteries- Malfunction and Discharge
    • Case: One such instance where the failure of technology led to severe consequences for the accused, despite no fault of his own is the case of Kevin Jones. Jones was arrested by the police in Oakland County, Michigan (the US) for violating conditions of his release on probation – because the battery of his “tether”, the GPS-enabled device used to track him, malfunctioned when he was asleep.

International Experience

  • Proneness to “False Alarms”-Research conducted by the University of Chicago shows that ankle monitors are highly prone to false alarms due to poor signal.
  • Challenges for Police to determine the genuineness of an alert.
  • Lack of Training of personnel to handle such sophisticated tech.

Caution

Given such attitudes, it is not surprising that GPS-enabled trackers have been readily adopted in the administration of criminal justice without due diligence. However, it is important that we take a step back and confront the questions about the validity and reliability of this technology, as well as the capacity of our law enforcement personnel to use it. Moving ahead with the use of GPS trackers without addressing these fundamental issues carries serious risks for the fair trial rights of accused persons.

Conceptual and Analytical Discourse

Technological Ethics

The application of GPS ankle monitors raises significant technological ethics concerns, primarily revolving around the reliability and validity of the technology in question. The technology's track record, as evidenced by experiences in other jurisdictions, highlights its susceptibility to errors. Issues such as the need for an unobstructed view of the sky, dependence on a robust cellular network, and vulnerability to atmospheric hindrances pose substantial challenges, especially in diverse and dynamic environments like India. The assumption of optimal conditions, a prerequisite for accurate tracking, becomes a critical point of contention.

Legal Ethics

From a legal ethics perspective, the introduction of GPS ankle monitors as a bail condition raises concerns about the potential infringement of the accused person's rights. Conditions imposed for bail are traditionally designed to prevent further crimes or tampering with evidence. However, the use of technology that is inherently flawed and prone to malfunctions introduces the risk of false accusations and unjust consequences for the accused.

Electronic Monitoring and Ethical Concerns

Ethical Question 1: Privacy Concerns and Intrusiveness

EM utilizes sophisticated tracking technologies for real-time monitoring of individuals, raising questions about privacy infringement. Critics argue that this encroachment violates fundamental human rights, especially in pre-trial cases where individuals may undergo monitoring without a jury conviction. On the other hand, proponents contend that EM is less intrusive than incarceration, emphasizing its role in safeguarding domestic violence survivors. Balancing the scales between privacy rights and public safety becomes paramount.

Ethical Question 2: Impact on Third Parties

Research reveals that EM disproportionately affects adult male offenders, potentially reinforcing traditional gender roles. Home confinement, a common aspect of EM, may place a heavier burden on women, contributing to gender inequality. Additionally, the stigmatizing nature of EM can lead to social isolation for the families of offenders, creating a sense of punishment for crimes they did not commit.

Ethical Question 3: Financial Implications

The financial dynamics of EM introduce ethical dilemmas. While governments see it as a cost-effective alternative, placing the financial burden on offenders, often from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, raises concerns. The potential for long-term economic consequences, coupled with limited employment opportunities during EM, adds complexity to the ethical discourse.

Ethical Question 4: Loss of Control Over Public Perception

The visibility of EM devices raises questions about an individual's right to control their public image. Restrictions on clothing choices and potential social stigmatization can impact an offender's self-esteem and rehabilitation prospects. Balancing public safety concerns with the individual's right to choose what information to disclose becomes a delicate ethical challenge.

Ethical Question 5: Technological Failures and Unjust Imprisonment

The imperfect nature of technology introduces ethical concerns regarding unjust imprisonment. Technical glitches, from connectivity issues to inaccurate signals, could lead to false accusations and potential incarceration. Striking a balance between technological advancements and safeguarding against unjust punishment is a critical aspect of the ethical considerations surrounding EM.

The takeaway

Despite the ethical questions raised by the adoption of EM, its benefits as a humane, cost-effective alternative to incarceration cannot be ignored. To address these concerns, a multi-faceted approach is necessary, including smarter EM programs, public education, family support, and rigorous testing protocols. By implementing these measures, societies can navigate the ethical complexities associated with EM, making it a more acceptable alternative to traditional prison sentences.

Conclusion

As India pioneers the use of GPS ankle monitors in the context of bail conditions for UAPA-accused individuals, it is imperative to address the dual dimensions of technological and legal ethics associated with this innovation. Critical evaluation, transparent discourse, and enhanced training for law enforcement personnel are necessary steps to ensure that the deployment of GPS tracking technology aligns with the principles of fairness, justice, and the protection of individual rights in the Indian criminal justice system. Failing to address these ethical concerns may jeopardize the intended objectives of this technological intervention and compromise the integrity of the legal process.

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