Feds drive toward high-tech criminal tracking system standard

Electronic monitoring technologies face challenges

U.S. Government Accountability Office

Electronic monitoring technologies are not the panacea for tracking criminals many believe they are.

The main issue – and it’s a big one – is that such the packages also known as offender tracking systems (OTS) operate and perform with no underlying industry standards for communications or software causing a myriad of problems for law enforcement agencies.

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An OTS typically consists of hardware, such as an ankle bracelet, used for collecting Global Positioning System (GPS) signals to determine an individual's location, and software for analyzing data collected from the hardware device.

The issues become more important as the use of the technology grows -- according to a 2012 Bureau of Justice Statistics surveys of probation and parole agencies in the 50 states, the federal system, and the District of Columbia, over 31,600 adults on probation or parole were supervised with GPS technology.

According to a recently released report from the Government Accountability Office a OTS standard proposed by the US Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice should address a number of technical and non-technical challenges.

The GAO summed up the key challenges as follows:

  • There are misconceptions among the public and victims that OTS allows agencies to prevent bad behavior before it happens;
  • The need to develop appropriate protocols to respond to OTS alerts, such as those for tampering with the tracking device; and
  • Remedy workload issues, such as whether there is sufficient staff or resources to respond to OTS alerts 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

NIJ's draft OTS standard includes requirements for common operational and circumvention detection needs, the GAO stated. For example, requirements for location accuracy and the ability to provide alerts when an offender tries to remove the device or is at a prohibited location are included in the standard.

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NIJ’s draft standard includes performance requirements for both indoor and outdoor location accuracy. Specifically, it calls for OTS to provide a location that is accurate within 10 meters 90% of the time in an open air environment with no obstructions. It also calls for OTS to provide a location that is accurate within 30 meters 90 percent of the time when placed in an 8-

foot by 8-foot single-story structure, the GAO stated. The draft standard calls for OTSs to be able to provide an on-demand location within 3 minutes of a request.

Another important feature of OTSs is to provide alerts to notify an agency of a number of different events. These events include, among others, occasions when an offender tampers with the tracking device by cutting it off or trying to remove it by stretching it over his or her foot, an offender violates zone rules by crossing the border of an exclusion or inclusion zone, the GPS location is lost; cellular communication is lost; and when the tracking device battery is low, the GAO stated. The draft standard calls for the OTSs to provide alerts within 3 minutes of an ankle strap being cut and within 4 minutes of ankle strap stretching and zone violations.

Alerts for tampering with the device and low battery are particularly important because cutting the device off and letting the battery die were the most common circumvention methods reported by officials, according to the GAO.

The draft standard also calls for OTS to function properly after being exposed to extreme temperatures ranging from—4 degrees Fahrenheit to 122 degrees Fahrenheit, Immersed in 2 meters of water, undergoing different shock tests,and exposure to vibration, among other things, the GAO noted.

OTSs generate a considerable amount of data on each offender. The draft standard calls for historical location data, status of all alerts, and offender identifiers to be exported into a defined comma-delimited text file, a widely used format.

The proposed OTS standard is set to be published in March 2016.

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