Tagged for Safety or Treated Like Criminals?

by Dr. Nileema Conlon Vaswani in


If you gave your mother or grandmother a mobile phone so that they could ring you if they started to feel unwell, society might regard you as a kind and thoughtful person. Consider, however, that they may not be able to use the phone when unwell and that you needed to give them a special sort of phone, one that could automatically contact you if the need arose. This phone would alert you to any problems that they encountered especially if these problems compromised their health and safety. In the first case, the person would be able to choose whether or not to make the phone call; in the second case, the call would be made, regardless of the wishes of the individual who carried the phone. The question is whether or not there is a substantive moral difference between the two types of cases.

In the case of the typical mobile phone, the person makes the decision and thereby exercises a choice to phone for help. In the second case, the choice is removed in that the call is made anyway. However, the choice to carry this special sort of phone that makes its own emergency calls is a choice that the person might have made. In effect, therefore, she would have chosen to make the phone call by virtue of the fact that she was carrying a phone that would automatically do this for her.

Suppose now that this phone has been secretly put into her pocket or handbag. She has not chosen to carry it and does not even know that it has been placed there for her safety. If she starts to become unwell, this special phone does its job and the person receives help. Although she has not consented to receiving help via this method, could the fact that she might benefit from having the phone with her outweigh the lack of consent?

If consent is possible, i.e., she would be able to understand what she was being asked to carry and why, then consent ought to be sought. If, however, she suffered from dementia to a degree that did not allow her to understand what was being asked, it would be morally permissible for a family member or carer to place this phone with the individual without her consent. On the same grounds, it would also be morally permissible to place it with her without her knowledge, as this action would also be intended at ensuring her safety.

There is the further question of whether there is any moral difference between the phone's dialling a family member or even being placed by one, as opposed to dialling or being placed with the person by an organisation. Again, this issue would depend on the person's ability to consent. If the person would like her phone to contact her family, this wish ought to be honoured; if, for whatever reason, the family is not the right point of contact, then an organisation equipped to deal with these sorts of calls would be appropriate. The harder issue is if the person is not capable of consent. In that case, as far as possible, the family ought to determine the most appropriate course of action.

Now suppose that phones like this had another use. Such phones could, say, be used to track criminals whose movements needed to be monitored. Just as the phone would self-dial one's family or the appropriate organisation in the case of a relative who started to feel unwell, the phone could be programmed to dial the police if a criminal violated curfew or entered an exclusion zone. Would this additional use of the phone detract from the value that it could have for your mother or grandmother who used a similar type of phone?

As long as such phones could be used for relatives who needed them, whether or not they are put to other uses should be morally irrelevant. The purpose of helping one's mother or grandmother would still be served, and possible moral difficulties have been discussed above. These difficulties can easily be resolved. It would be interesting to ask, however, whether our moral position would change if we discovered that these special, self-dialling phones were, in fact, already being used to track criminals and that now they were being considered in the context of elderly people.

It would seem unreasonable to change our moral stance on the use of the special phone merely because we discovered that it was used on criminals especially because the only common factor is the actual phone. This is not a morally significant similarity. The idea of the same type of phone being used for an elderly relative as is for a criminal seems awful because an association between one's close family or friends and the criminals who may carry these phones is simply unthinkable. However, we are not labelling our elderly relatives as criminals or attributing any negative qualities to them. It is only the technology that is the same. In the case of criminals, the special phones would help monitor the criminals for the sake of public safety; in the case of an elderly relative, the phones would be used to monitor them for the sake of their own safety.

Consider now that instead of a special phone, elderly relatives were "tagged" and so were criminals. One would not think that the type of device ought to alter our moral stand on the issue. The tagging device would work in the same way as would these special phones. It is somewhat surprising, therefore, that the proposal by Science Minister, Malcolm Wicks, has been met with mixed reaction. He has suggested that elderly people with Alzheimer's Disease and other forms of Dementia be "tagged" so that they can be independent while at the same time safe. The tagging device would be similar to the one used to monitor the movements of criminals who have been discharged into the community. An elderly person who suffers from dementia would be tagged and then tracked; a family member or carer would know if the person is safe.

Any moral repugnance we have towards such a device might disappear if we consider it a form of keeping in touch or a mere safety device that enables us to know if the people we care about are safe. In fact, we already use many such devices. Baby monitors are used to ensure that our children are safe, and some patients with epilepsy and other conditions wear safety bracelets. This tagging device is no different from a moral standpoint.

We are right to have reservations about these tagging devices but these ought not to be centred around the fact that they are also used to monitor criminals. Our concerns should focus on how well the technology would work if an elderly person had the device on, whether it would genuinely grant the individual more independence, and whether such a device would tempt people to take more chances, thereby harming rather than helping them. To reject the device on the basis that it is also used on criminals is morally irrelevant and does our elderly population, many of whom suffer from some form of dementia, a serious disservice.