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November 27, 2017

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The Video Surveillance Report 2022

Botched GPS tagging programme reflects badly on the technology used, says Digital Barriers CEO

The Ministry of Justice has been urged to consider different tagging systems after it emerged that £5m has been squandered on an “over-ambitious” GPS tagging scheme.

Zak Doffman, CEO of Digital Barriers, which has developed an alternative system that harnesses smartphones and facial recognition technology, said: “This news highlights how expensive and challenging it is to deploy dedicated hardware with limited functionality to carry out essentially simple but secure tasks.

“We have worked closely with partner organisations, including major custody service providers, to understand how to solve this challenge much more cost effectively. We can now do the very same job as a GPS offender tagging system using nothing more than a smartphone equipped with our facial recognition software designed for military and law enforcement.”

The scandal-hit GPS tracking tag programme was launched in the UK in 2011. Delays mean that the next-generation satellite tracking tags for keeping tabs on offenders will now not come into use until early 2019.


MPs on the Commons public accounts committee told senior Ministry of Justice officials in November that the programme to develop a world-leading GPS tracking tag had been disastrous so far.

The scheme, intended to save up to £30 million, has so far cost £60 million on top of its original £130 million budget. Already running five years late, it was further delayed because the general election postponed part of the contracting.

Ministry of Justice officials admitted that major mistakes had been made, including a failure to pilot the tags. They hope about 1,000 offenders a year can be tracked when it is eventually implemented.

Private security company G4S has now been appointed to complete the project.

Doffman argues that the Digital Barriers system – which is at the proof-of-concept stage – is superior to systems in use in several ways.

“A periodic check-in via facial recognition software installed on an offender’s smartphone, combined with its GPS location, offers a far simpler means of offender monitoring. It can’t be cheated, offers an instant means of contacting the individual should they break curfew and can be delivered at a fraction of the cost.”

The Ministry of Justice permanent secretary, Richard Heaton, told MPs that he had been “startled and stunned” by the over-ambition of the original programme, which had envisaged that 65,000 offenders would be electronically tagged in the community as part of their sentence.

First generation systems

Around 12,000 offenders are attached with first-generation radio frequency tags, which can only monitor whether someone is at a particular address or not.

The tags are mostly used to monitor prisoners released early on home detention curfews, those on bail, or those out of prison on temporary licence.

Satellite tracking tags for offenders in England and Wales was first promised by David Blunkett when he was Labour home secretary in 2004, to provide a “prison without bars” for the 5,000 most prolific offenders.

Confidence in the government’s tagging programme had already been knocked by a Serious Fraud Office investigation into the basic tagging contract run by G4S and Serco, which were found to be overcharging. The two companies have repaid £179 million but the SFO inquiry continues.

Doffman does acknowledge that Digital Barriers’ technology has not been deployed in the field yet, but insists the company can show prison authorities that it’s ready for deployment in for “the vast majority of people tagged under such schemes.”

“We already have the technology and, whilst it may be too early to deploy this for the highest risk offenders, it is the ideal solution for the vast majority of people tagged under such schemes. We can now deploy proofs of concept to authorities wanting to explore how they can both save money and reduce the time and effort to deliver such solutions.”

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