Big Brother Steps Closer as Parents Shackle Teens to Ankle Monitors

A perfect example of George Orwell’s terrifying view of a society under government surveillance has arrived in the form of ankle monitors for your teens.

For parents who “need to keep track of [their] teenager at all times,” Tampa Bay Monitoring in Clearwater, Florida, is selling GPS tracking — similar to the shackles used to track those on parole — billed as a way for parents to have “peace of mind” and for so-called troubled teens to have “protection.” Never mind that these monitors function as a form of private surveillance, enabling parents and anyone else with access to shadow a teen’s every move. Besides, these devices can be uncomfortable and can cause problems at airports, hospitals and schools, and many people have concerns about where all the tracking information goes and who has access to it.

Who has access is crucial in an age where, per TechCrunch, an online zine, Facebook has been paying teenage users $20 a month since 2016 to install an app which monitors their phone and web activity. This is precisely so Facebook can gain usage information. Meanwhile, police in the U.K. have been secretly downloading data from smartphones, which Harmit Kambo, campaigns director for the London-based charity, Privacy International, calls a “digital stop and search.” In a paper entitled “’Better than Human’? Smartphones, Artificial Intelligence and Ultra-Punitive Electronic Monitoring,” Mike Nellis, a global expert in electronic monitoring, wrote that the prime beneficiaries are always “the data-hungry tech industry.”

Tampa Bay Monitoring isn’t the only company in on the action. Such for-profit companies have proliferated. The company GPS Monitoring Solutions in Arizona and California says that it, too, will gladly provide parents with login credentials to their monitoring center so they can track their children. AngelSense is using monitors to supposedly “[create] a safer world” for teens with disabilities, and SafetyNet says it is using law enforcement and radio frequency for the purpose of “protecting people and locating the lost.”

As carceral technology extends itself further and further into family life, we must ask if such intrusive information-gathering is a substitute for solving the underlying issues.

One thing is for sure: Orwell’s famous words in his dystopian novel, 1984, are all the more relevant in 2019, and all the more ominous: “Big Brother is watching you.”

Tracking Your Teens

Tampa Bay Monitoring’s website says that it has been providing alcohol and GPS monitoring for the punishment system for eight years. The company’s owner, Frank Kopczynski, is also the owner of Action Plus Bail Bonds, whose motto is “We don’t just get you out, we get you help.”

Kopczynski’s current niche of marketing carceral technology to what he has referred to as “desperate parents” is what scholar Shoshana Zuboff might call a perfect project for “the age of surveillance capitalism.” The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power is also the title of her book, which warns of technology gone awry and “the challenges to humanity posed by the digital future.”

In several articles Kopczynski has painted one scenario after another where distressed parents might need to purchase one of his products, such as the “minimally intrusive” watch-like device called a Buddi or the “intense” ankle monitor, which replicates what is worn by people on parole. Both are nearly impossible to cut off and each can track the child’s every movement. The marketing evokes any parent’s nightmare. As Kopczynski asked in the Miami Herald in December 2018, “With the opioid epidemic and fentanyl, what’s worse: a dead child, or having them be embarrassed by wearing a bracelet?” (“Bracelet” is the euphemistic term often used to describe ankle monitors, obscuring the fact that they are more akin to shackles than jewelry.) In Quartz, this past December, Kopczynski said, “An embarrassed child is better than someone’s daughter ‘running off with a guy who’s going to eventually take her to a motel and beat her ass.’”

Kopczynski told Truthout in a phone conversation that he extended his GPS court business to monitor teens because “No one else would do it.… But Mom or Dad comes to us and [says] my 14-year-old daughter is hooking up with a 35-year-old man.”

On December 4, a stint on Fox 13 News upped the calls Kopczynski got from across the country for his services which he said are only available in Florida, and which cost $10 a day for monitoring. (This could add up to $3,650 a year.) On Fox, it was reported that the monitor can track a teen any time of day, and even call to check up on them. Kopczynski said in the TV report, “All his friends who are likely to be getting him into trouble suddenly realize that his ankle can talk to him and it also can hear him.”

Leah Mack, writing for the nonprofit Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, said that this kind of intrusiveness is “a modern day scarlet letter” for teenagers. In an article entitled, “Electronic Monitoring [EM] Hurts Kids and Their Communities,” Mack wrote, “Youth placed on EM recall feeling dehumanized and like they were being kept on a leash…. These experiences may worsen conditions like depression or PTSD, harming the child’s mental health.”

Emmett Sanders spoke to Mack both about his own experience being on a GPS monitor after he had been incarcerated for 22-and-a-half years and about the travesty of using such carceral technology on children. Now he is part of the #NoDigitalPrisons campaign at the Center for Media Justice, which is a leading force in clarifying how electronic monitoring is a form of incarceration. Sanders said, “When the home becomes a place of incarceration for a child, they are being told that there is no hope, no place where they are safe.”

In a telephone interview with Truthout, Sanders said, “If a child cuts [the monitor] off, a warning sent to a parent becomes the same action as an ‘escape.’ Children effectively become prisoners.” He also told Truthout that he had seen some monitors with Disney characters on them marketed to parents.

His work with #NoDigitalPrisons has convinced him that “placing a shackle on a child’s ankle violates their personhood. What happens to the data that is collected? Do parents have it, or do these companies have any regulations? Are they selling the data? There is no real oversight there.”

The Slippery Slope

What’s next on the horizon? “Monitors on the elderly marketed as a way of caring for people,” said Sanders.

In fact, one company called SafetyNet promotes a watch-like device, a patented tracking system, as a way to help people and agencies “rescue” those with “autism, Alzheimer’s, Down syndrome, dementia or other cognitive conditions who may wander and become lost.” It is clear that there are some families that might want to sign on to these products because they fear for their loved one’s safety, and SafetyNet exploits that by saying they are saving lives. Of course, this illusory “safety” comes at the expense of the rights, freedoms and privacy of people with disabilities. Their website also advertises that SafetyNet rescue teams receive “access to a secure database of important client information.”

Jorge Renaud, who is senior policy analyst with the Prison Policy Initiative in Massachusetts and has written for #NoDigitalPrisons, told Truthout, “The [electronic monitor] is an information gathering device. This is a continued intrusion into one’s personal life.”

On Medium, Renaud wrote about his experience with the monitor after 10 years behind bars in Texas. Its presence constantly reminded him “of the possibility of a cage.” He said of using carceral technology with the family, “There is a confluence of marketing here. One is with Corrections and the other with concerned family members and nursing homes, and they are intertwined in a lot of ways.” He compared slogans about the monitor — “more freedom to do what we want as a family” — to the way the telephone company, Securus, markets prison Skype-like visits to family members: “Do you want your loved one to feel like they are home with you, even when they can’t be?”

“Anything that furthers the aims of law enforcement can be malignant,” said Renaud.

The rise of monitoring can also be seen in the slippery slope of smartphones. Sanders said that children with such devices have been asked “to hold them up and show [the authorities] who is around.” Sanders added, “Not only is the child being monitored, but everyone they come in contact [with] can be monitored.”

As reported in The New York Times in August 2018, a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found that “While most adults don’t location-track their 13- to 17-year-olds, a full 16 percent of parents do.”

Why have parents resorted to such tracking? Some out of fear, but Lenore Skenazy, author of the book, Free Range Kids: How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts With Worry), wrote on her blog, “Parents pass that fear along to their children when they give them this device along with the unspoken lesson: You are not safe unless we are there with you.”

Businesses are also getting in on tracking other vulnerable populations. There is AngelSense, marketing its products on its website as “Creating a Safer World for Children with Special Needs.” They provide a child GPS tracker and an app for the parent, all “designed to protect our special children from wandering, bullying and mistreatment.” AngelSense says that they send an elopement alert when a child goes missing. They sew their GPS monitors into shirts and provide non-removable belts (only parents have the key, they say).

Boston attorney Beth Eisenberg, as director of the Special Litigation Unit at the Committee for Public Counsel Services, sought relief for groups of clients affected by oppressive and unjust laws. Some of the cases she worked on were GPS cases that affected vulnerable populations. In an interview, she told Truthout that the Supreme Judicial Court held that mandatory GPS monitoring is punitive (Doe v. Chairperson of the Massachusetts Parole Board).

“With any kind of GPS monitoring, we are talking about intrusion and oppression, not about people’s autonomy, liberty and privacy,” Eisenberg said.

One monitoring device has a two-way voice function that — according to Claire Gillespie, who writes a parenting blog — “lets you speak to your child at any time without having to press buttons or click on anything first. It also has a listen-in function so you can hear exactly what’s going on around your child at any point.”

Eisenberg asked, “What is the value to the wearer? How can the concerns of the parent outweigh the effects, both short term and long term? These GPS monitors heighten the likelihood of devastating personal consequences to the child and to his or her social and psychological development.” When Eisenberg worked with children with autism, she said these monitors had a shaming effect because the children feel “different” even if the monitors are hidden from view.

GPS trackers? So much for the rights of children — and particularly children with disabilities, who are already deprived of so many rights. GPS trackers also raise an ethical issue because according to Pam Cowburn, communications director of the Open Rights Group, as reported in the Guardian in 2016, they have the potential to “limit children’s privacy and personal freedom, while encouraging them to accept surveillance.”

The Future

According to Quartz, state-run electronic monitoring programs are on the rise.

The Pew Research Center found that “the electronic monitoring industry has more than doubled in size in recent years, and has expanded well beyond its initial market of people on bail or parole. For example, immigrants detained by U.S. authorities and put on an electronic monitoring program are required to pay extremely high fees — $880 for activation plus $420 a month — while they await their hearings.”

Meanwhile, as businesses continue to try and convince us that our children and parents need to be tracked with GPS devices, Lenore Skenazy wrote that since the beginning of time, parents have longed to keep their kids safe, even going so far as to lock them in the basement — an act that could be considered a crime. She pondered this: “The ankle [monitor], for some reason, is perfectly legal.”

Maybe we need to ask why.

What is clear is that we are surveilling our loved ones to squelch fears of drug abuse, abduction, runaways and harmful behaviors, instead of addressing drug policy, poverty, ableism and other forms of social alienation.