From the shanty town favelas of Rio de Janeiro, to working-class community housing estates in New Zealand, to the battle-weary streets of Chicago’s South Side, electronic monitors — digital tracking devices that monitor the location and behaviors of people facing increased surveillance by police — have become normalized.
Like police cars and bodegas, they are part of the social landscape. While the traditional ankle monitor remains the dominant technology for electronic monitoring (EM), cellphone apps, wristlets and whatever other devices Big Tech comes up with are moving into the marketplace of human tracking. In the era of artificial intelligence, machine learning and global networks, electronic monitoring companies and their political supporters continue to make unfounded promises that electronic monitors will reduce crime and bring peace to violence-torn communities. Despite the lack of evidence that their devices have a positive impact, their usage and capacity continue to expand.
Tracking apps now not only capture a wearer’s location but also grab biometric data like heart rates, respiration rates, voice patterns and facial features. Some conduct two-way audio and video communication. While Colorado-based BI Incorporated, which began as a cattle tracking company in the 1970s, stands as the world’s largest supplier of electronic monitors, it is not alone. Israel-based Supercom and Attenti, the United Kingdom’s Buddi and Capita, China’s Refine Technologies and Brazil’s Spacecom are carving out global monitoring territory. Berg Insight Report, the only global study of EM, estimated about 517,00 people per year were on an electronic monitor of some sort in Europe and the Americas in 2021.
The United States remains the largest site of EM usage. While prison populations in the U.S. have declined by about 13 percent since the 2010 census, ankle monitors and other e-carceration devices have widened their net. According to Berg, the average daily case load of people on pretrial and post-prison monitors in the U.S. in 2021 was approximately 368,000, an enormous leap from the 2015 figure of 125,000 in a study by The Pew Charitable Trusts. The Pew figures did not include an estimated 10,000 individuals on electronic monitors under the authority of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
Existing evidence substantiates the scale of the Berg figure. ICE leads the way. The agency shifted from GPS ankle monitors to BI’s SmartLINK cellphone tracking app. The figures of migrants on SmartLink grew from 6,000 in 2019 to 181,945 in June 2023. Though data for local authorities is limited, some jurisdictions showed considerable expansion in pretrial EM.
A Freedom of Information Act query shared with Truthout revealed that Wayne County, Michigan, hiked its pretrial EM cohort from 162 in 2019 to an active population of more than 1,200 by April of 2020. Marion County, Indiana; Cook County, Illinois; San Francisco, California; and Harris County, Texas showed similar trends, while the federal prison system released 30,000 people on EM-linked house arrest in early 2020. Much of this was an attempt to reduce jail and prison populations. However, as other pandemic protections were lifted, and in most of these cases jail and prison populations returned to pre-COVID-19 levels, EM usage did not subside.
Brazil: The Focal Point
Brazil is the most important focal point for the global spread of electronic monitoring. The effort to arrest the spread of COVID in an overcrowded, notoriously violent prison system spawned a rise in EM users from 6,000 in 2019 to 91,000 today. However, the expansion of EM in Brazil has been a rough ride.
Spacecom, the Brazilian firm that handles all EM contracts, imported devices from China that frequently reported individuals’ locations incorrectly, sending people back to prison for false alerts. More problematic was their overheating. Researcher Ricardo Campello, author of the definitive volume on EM in Brazil, Short Circuit, told Truthout he interviewed several people who suffered serious burns to their legs due to the heat and occasional flames bursting from their monitors.
Moreover, wearing an ankle monitor in Brazil can be life threatening. According to Campello, Brazilian police, who have a murder rate five times that of their U.S. counterparts, have targeted those wearing a monitor for violence or even death. Street organizations with strong links to prisons also developed a protocol for wearing ankle shackles. Those from the powerful Primeiro Comando da Capital wore them on their right leg, while opposing factions placed them on the left ankle. Traveling into enemy territory with the monitor on the wrong leg (or being dropped off there by police) could have dire consequences. As Campello put it, in Brazil wearing the device demarcated a person whose life was “dispensable.” Sergio, a formerly incarcerated Brazilian who wore a monitor, told Campello, “the tether itself legitimizes death.”
With the recent ascent of Workers’ Party leader Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to the Brazilian presidency, reform-minded activists in the Ministry of Justice and its think tank, the National Justice Council, are campaigning to rein in EM. In a June conference in Brasilia, jointly sponsored by the United Nations Development Programme and the Brazilian government, speakers from around the world (including this author) shared ideas on the “Technology, Ethics and Guarantee of Rights” in EM programs. They focused on how to move Brazil toward a system that, in the words of conference organizer Dr. Isabella Pimenta, would embody “restorative justice” and a reduction of punishment.
In an address to open the conference, Supreme Court President Rosa Weber declared that “electronic monitoring should not make a person feel as if they don’t have the rights of citizenship.” No national government brought in such high-level officials to focus on the challenges and complexities of electronic monitoring.
While no nation in the continent approaches Brazil’s rapid expansion, EM has been spreading. In 2008, Argentina became the first Latin American nation to implement EM. Major multinational conferences have debated the future of “alternatives to incarceration,” including EM. A 2019 continental convening, EL PAcCTO, brought representatives from 12 Latin American nations together to examine policy options. Resulting initiatives in six countries added EM to national agendas and led to expansion of EM in Costa Rica and several other countries.
New Zealand and Australia
Though less violent, the expansion of EM in New Zealand has followed a similar trajectory to Brazil. A 2022 New Zealand news report placed the total number of people on EM at 6,500, an increase from 3,500 in 2017. This gave New Zealand the second-highest per capita use of EM in the world, behind the U.S.
Access to EM has also become an issue of racial justice, with an unusual twist. Māori people comprise only 15 percent of New Zealanders but 54 percent of those in prison. Kelvin Davis, the first Māori person to serve as deputy leader of the Labor Party and currently the minister of corrections, has indirectly framed access to EM as a racial justice issue, stressing that some remote areas of New Zealand, largely populated by Māori, have no cellphone access, and therefore residents cannot be released on EM. Hence, in some instances people remain in jail because they live in a rural Māori community.
The discourse in New Zealand thus surprisingly features a request for proposals for electronic monitors, in which the Department of Corrections called for submissions to exemplify “a new way of working” to build and strengthen whanau (the Māori language word for “extended family group” relationships). The Ministry of Corrections mandated suppliers to incorporate a “Te Ao Māori world view” endeavoring to ensure that “remote monitoring should improve a person’s access to their culture, their connection to their people and place,” while providing a “sense of belonging.”
The New Zealand example embodies a new form of carceral humanism, in which EM is packaged as a “progressive” reform and given the “alternative to incarceration” label. This framing has received harsh critiques from left legal scholars and more abolitionist-oriented groups.
By comparison, EM in Australia has a contradictory history. While numbers have risen in recent years, a previous experiment with EM home detention in the state of Victoria from 2004-10 resulted in the closure of the program, largely due to the failure of officials to assign individuals to EM. This has somewhat tainted electronic monitoring as a policy measure.
Asia and Africa
The Shanghai-based Refine Technologies runs the largest EM program in Asia, with more than 100,000 clients. However, given the population of China and the extent of other, more sophisticated surveillance technologies that include 500 million street cameras equipped with facial recognition and complex wi-fi sniffers, electronic monitors are minor players in the overall security and criminal legal system in the world’s most surveilled nation. While other Asian countries have implemented EM (South Korea, Thailand, Pakistan, India) none has placed much emphasis on developing EM programs.
On the African continent, only South Africa has an extensive program of post-prison and pretrial release. Senegal recently announced a contract to implement their first pretrial monitors. In much of Africa and Asia, the uneven level of access to technology, especially in rural areas, has hindered the expansion of EM.
According to the Berg report, the 22 nations of Europe (including the U.K.) altogether had a daily EM caseload of 50,000 people in 2021. Yet most of these nations have not seen substantial expansion in the last decade. The major shift has been toward adoption of GPS devices that track a person’s location instead of radio frequency, which only tells authorities if a person is at home. This slow adoption of GPS tracking stems from a strong privacy ethos in most European countries, part of the social democratic approach to probation that leading international EM expert Mike Nellis refers to as a “humanistic approach.” While far from transformative, this ethos does sharply contrast to the law enforcement paradigm adopted by most parole and probation agents in the U.S.
Another factor in moderating both the scale and punitive measures of EM has been the Confederation of European Probation (CEP). Founded in 1980, the CEP has held 12 conferences on electronic monitoring policy, giving considerable focus to the rights of the people being monitored. Probation services run EM in most European countries. In 2014, the CEP put forward a set of recommendations to guarantee the rights of those on electronic monitors.
EM appears poised to continue widening its net, drawing in more people, grabbing more data, and finding new ways to incorporate artificial intelligence. Although only prevalent in the U.S. now, the future of EM lies in cellphone apps which can build on the existing infrastructure of mobile phones. With cellphones now outnumbering people globally, and smart phones constituting about 68 percent of those devices, the use of the traditional ankle monitor seems likely to fade.
The key questions about the future of EM, however, don’t relate to absolute numbers or devices, but how the monitors will intersect with systems of personal surveillance and control informed by artificial intelligence.
Based on cellphones and subsequent generations of technology, future electronic monitors will incorporate facial recognition along with other forms of surveillance and data gathering steeped in race, gender and class bias. At present, what we know about the racial bias of electronic monitors is far more about who is placed on EM than the outcomes of the implementation of the devices.
Three crucial points emerge in considering those outcomes. First, the enhanced video and audio capacity of electronic monitors will heighten the possibilities of granular details of peoples’ lives landing in the cloud. This data will incorporate the biases that are integral to the development of surveillance systems.
Second, the reality of the cloud creates the possibility of data gathered through EM feeding into the criminalization of targeted populations, particularly in global initiatives like the war on drugs and the war on terror. Research by Mijente and Just Futures Law has shown that companies like Thomson Reuters and LexisNexis market data gleaned from ICE cellphone monitors to other law enforcement agencies and commercial vendors. In this sense, the ankle monitor and the cellphone app become gateways to clouds of never ending data accumulation.
Third, the data gathered from monitoring enhances the capacity of authorities to label and categorize individuals and groups, and use punitive algorithms to inflict collective punishment that limits the freedom and life options of entire communities or groups with common traits or personal histories. Obviously in the context of the U.S., this means yet another dimension to the oppression of Black people in particular.
At the height of the COVID pandemic, communities in China and India were categorized according to the level of viral infections present. Their allowed movement was based on the penetration of the COVID virus. Simpler systems of exclusion zones are frequently part of EM regimes in the U.S. In the future, EM will be able to gather data not only at the individual level but through geographic or racial targeting. This may not occur in European countries where EM is embedded in social welfare systems still informed to some degree by Nellis’s humanistic approach to care, but given the level of racialized criminalization in countries like the U.S. and Brazil, any social service aspect of EM will be eclipsed by its use to surveil and punish. Instead, public and private spaces, including people’s homes, will become carceral spaces ever more tightly monitored by technology.
In the world of artificial intelligence and surveillance capitalism inhabited by drones, Stingrays, Dirtboxes and other high-tech devices, the electronic monitor may seem insignificant. But as the cellphone apps and their techno-successors extend their presence and capacity, they seamlessly blend into a world of surveillance, a world that is moving into new regions at a rapid rate.
While political action on EM largely has taken the form of hyper-local struggles against the use of EM in pretrial regimes and immigration, there is a need to expand this vision. The proliferation of EM across the globe requires that activists break new ideological ground and situate these devices in the international network of racialized techno-punishment and control, the world of “e-carceration.” Only the emergence of powerful social justice movements — led by the criminalized sectors of the working class and armed with a global analysis and program of action — can halt this spread.
Note: This article was amended to clarify that this report was produced by The Pew Charitable Trusts rather than by Pew Research.
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