Canadian City Plans to Track Offenders With Technology That Doesn't Even Exist

Can sci-fi fight crime? Not likely.

by Jordan Pearson
Feb 26 2016, 11:00am

Image: Flickr/Michael Coghlan

Law enforcement agencies across North America have implemented intrusive practices with questionable effectiveness in the name of curbing crime: stop and frisk, "carding," and, some would argue, bulk metadata surveillance.

On Thursday, the tiny Canadian city of Williams Lake in British Columbia may have just beat them all with a shitty idea of awe-inspiring proportions: the city unanimously passed a motion to implant GPS tracking devices into so-called "high profile offenders" after their release from jail, so law enforcement can be aware of their activities at all times. Councillor Scott Nelson, who put the motion forward, told me over the phone that ankle-worn GPS devices don't go "far enough," and that chosen offenders could be harassers, sex offenders, or "people smashing stuff in the community."

Appalling implications for civil liberties aside—the BC Civil Liberties Association has already labeled the plan a "non-starter" under Canadian law, and the Privacy Commissioner's Office confirmed to Motherboard that it was not consulted about nor made aware of the plan—the idea has another huge flaw: implantable GPS devices do not currently exist commercially.

"They've probably been watching too many Hollywood movies"

"They've probably been watching too many Hollywood movies," said Amal Graafstra, founder of DIY biohacking implant company Dangerous Things. "From a technical standpoint, it's extremely difficult."

The issues with implanting a GPS device have been well-covered in the past, and there are two main ones: signal strength and power. On the signal strength side, human skin would effectively block most GPS signals, Graafstra said. On the issue of power, a GPS emitter would likely require batteries, which would necessitate a bulky protective covering—even relatively low-power implants, like pacemakers, require them.

"It would be something probably the size of a deck of cards, and it would need to be somewhere up high in the body," said Graafstra. "You're talking about major, major surgery to put this in."

"The problem [with GPS implants] would lie in how to power these up," Patrick Lanhed, a biohacker who implanted a chip in his hand to make bitcoin payments, wrote in an email. "By actively broadcasting I assume a chip like that would require a pretty decent amount of power to run. And to my knowledge there is no solution for that yet."

Both the power and signal issues have held the technology back from being commercially available for years, Graafstra said.

Since Williams Lake doesn't have the jurisdiction to actually follow through with the plan, according to the CBC, the city plans to ask the Union of B.C. Municipalities and the North Central Local Government Association to petition the federal government to implement the trackers (which, again, don't exist). According to Graafstra, Williams Lake might as well be asking the government to develop the technology in the first place.

But asking the government to research surveillance tech that isn't quite there yet is exactly what Williams Lake City Council has in mind, Nelson told me. "If that's part of the overarching resolution as an option," he said, "I think you'll probably see that come forward."

The motion was put forward in the wake of an admittedly shocking crime for the small community of WIlliams Lake: a young boy was robbed of his bike at gunpoint, and on camera.

But just like Nelson's belief that ankle trackers don't go "far enough," one wonders whether "knee jerk" goes far enough in describing the city's reaction to the crime.