Is Your Government Tracking Your Movements?

The efficacy of a crime fighting technique is often used as its justification, even at the expense of privacy. Police agencies using infrared heat sensors to uncover marijuana grow lights inside residences, without bothering to obtain a search warrant, argued that they were merely measuring heat in the public air to catch bad guys before the Supreme Court concluded that their efforts violated the Fourth Amendment.

The latest controversial use of technology to invade privacy is GPS tracking. A transmitter is surreptitiously attached to a suspect's car, and the police follow the suspect's movements electronically.

[more ...]

Across the country, police are using GPS devices to snare thieves, drug dealers, sexual predators and killers, often without a warrant or court order. Privacy advocates said tracking suspects electronically constitutes illegal search and seizure, violating Fourth Amendment rights of protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, and is another step toward George Orwell's Big Brother society. Law enforcement officials, when they discuss the issue at all, said GPS is essentially the same as having an officer trail someone, just cheaper and more accurate. Most of the time ... judges have sided with police.

Advocates of GPS tracking argue that drivers have no reasonable expectation of privacy on public streets. GPS tracking, however, isn't confined to public travel. It shows the locations of cars that have entered private structures or that drive along private roads on private property -- places a trailing law enforcement officer would be unable to follow.

The devices are becoming ubiquitous. Says TL blogger emeritus Last Night in Little Rock:

"I've seen them in cases from New York City to small towns -- whoever can afford to get the equipment and plant it on a car," said John Wesley Hall, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. "And of course, it's easy to do. You can sneak up on a car and plant it at any time."

The use of technology to snoop is a growing problem for those who worry about the government's lack of respect for privacy:

Barry Steinhardt, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's technology and liberty program, considers GPS monitoring, along with license plate readers, toll transponders and video cameras with face-recognition technology, part of the same trend toward "an always-on, surveillance society."

"Things that would have seemed fantastic 15 years ago are now routine," he said. "We have to rethink what is a reasonable expectation of privacy."

Whether the Supreme Court will eventually decide that a warrant is needed to indulge in GPS tracking is unclear. It would be nice to think there might be a political solution -- legislation requiring the police to obtain a warrant before tracking our movements with GPS technology -- but the "tough on crime" crowd, the folks who value security over liberty, will not easily let that happen.

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    Computer person on (5.00 / 1) (#2)
    by waldenpond on Wed Aug 13, 2008 at 01:25:52 PM EST
    NBC business channel a couple of weeks ago.  (I forget the publication he works for.) It was amazing the info they can gather.  It isn;t just your car and phone.  The companies have willingly worked to meet the govts requests.  Your camera has a chip.  Your purchase is recorded.  Any time you load a photo on to the net, your photo has a code that tracks it back to your camera.  Your printer is registered to you.  Every piece of paper you print has a code on the back that take differing washes and a light to reveal.  If you want anonymity you need to go out of your area, pay cash and lie about your personal info.

    The computer guys were spending a lot of time trying to break the coding so they can disable it.  They haven't been able to break the code Canon cameras or HP printers yet and some other items but they are working on it.

    If they are tracking me, they will be sorely (none / 0) (#3)
    by PssttCmere08 on Wed Aug 13, 2008 at 01:26:57 PM EST
    disappointed, unless dissent becomes a capitol crime...oh no, here come the big, black SUV's.

    Yep (5.00 / 0) (#4)
    by cmugirl on Wed Aug 13, 2008 at 01:33:52 PM EST
    I might truly bore them to death.  Just like when I talk to one of my sisters on my cell phone and start criticizing Bush, I always preface my comment with "For the NSA person listening, my name is Julie and you may find me at this location at this time."  

    Saves time and paperwork for them, I guess.


    In Minnesota (5.00 / 0) (#5)
    by eric on Wed Aug 13, 2008 at 01:38:09 PM EST
    this is called stalking, and is ILLEGAL.

    See 649.749 subc. 2(a)(2).

    You mean it's illegal (none / 0) (#39)
    by lizpolaris on Wed Aug 13, 2008 at 04:33:18 PM EST
    unless it's the government doing it?

    So if the goverment (5.00 / 3) (#6)
    by sister of ye on Wed Aug 13, 2008 at 01:40:55 PM EST
    can put devices on our cars and record where and when we travel, I assume that it's perfectly legal for private citizens to do the same.

    Perhaps what we need is a few "bugs" put on the cars of journalists, judges, congressman, and so on. Put the info up on the internet so people can see what these so-called servants of the people and champions of the free press are up to. That might give them a wee bit different idea about average citizens' privacy.

    oooh sister of ye....I like your style!! (none / 0) (#7)
    by PssttCmere08 on Wed Aug 13, 2008 at 01:49:27 PM EST
    That might scare doing the right thing into some of our so-called servants of the people.

    That's the problem (none / 0) (#8)
    by eric on Wed Aug 13, 2008 at 01:50:54 PM EST
    if you do this, it's stalking.

    Orwell said it best.... (none / 0) (#10)
    by kdog on Wed Aug 13, 2008 at 01:54:39 PM EST
    "Some animals are more equal than others."

    Heh (5.00 / 1) (#9)
    by Steve M on Wed Aug 13, 2008 at 01:53:45 PM EST
    I came across this issue studying for the bar exam.  Sure enough, the correct answer was that no warrant was required for a tracking device because it doesn't give the police any information they couldn't get by tailing you manually.

    I wouldn't be surprised, though, that as the practice becomes more widespread, the courts may start to look at it with a more jaundiced eye.

    Trailing a person and seeing what they (5.00 / 1) (#13)
    by inclusiveheart on Wed Aug 13, 2008 at 02:05:27 PM EST
    are doing is very different from only showing where and when a car has been driven somewhere.  Seems like the only illegal activity that could be determined from tracking a car by GPS might be tresspassing, but even then how do we know who was driving the car at the time?

    Aside from the obvious privacy issues, these techno spying tactics are often presented as being somehow conclusive while there are all kinds of reasons that they are inadequate in determining important facts.


    Traffic violations (none / 0) (#15)
    by eric on Wed Aug 13, 2008 at 02:22:46 PM EST
    Seems like the only illegal activity that could be determined from tracking a car by GPS might be tresspassing, but even then how do we know who was driving the car at the time?

    Or perhaps, speeding.


    I seem to remember that in the (none / 0) (#26)
    by inclusiveheart on Wed Aug 13, 2008 at 02:53:04 PM EST
    early days of the traffic cameras, some people in some juridictions were able to challenge the tickets because the camera shots didn't show who was driving the car and it was not the car that got the ticket but the driver.

    In LA. anyway, (none / 0) (#27)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Wed Aug 13, 2008 at 02:55:58 PM EST
    the cameras photograph your face as well. I make it a habit not to run red lights, but also to drive with my visor down, just in case.

    The traffic cameras are such big money (none / 0) (#30)
    by inclusiveheart on Wed Aug 13, 2008 at 03:01:00 PM EST
    makers that I think most city councils are changing whatever laws they can in order to get the revenue from these tickets.

    I read recently that in DC the Mayor and council are even going so far as to plan to close traffic court and make it impossible to even contest these tickets.  Nice huh?


    lol....some were able to get out of the ticket (none / 0) (#33)
    by PssttCmere08 on Wed Aug 13, 2008 at 03:21:12 PM EST
    as the cameras/timers were not calibrated on a regular basis.

    What about (none / 0) (#11)
    by eric on Wed Aug 13, 2008 at 02:01:46 PM EST
    trespass to chattels?  Does one have a civil claim, at least?  I know that people sue spammers and spyware companies for trespass to chattels.

    Hey! (none / 0) (#12)
    by Steve M on Wed Aug 13, 2008 at 02:04:51 PM EST
    I'm done with the bar now, no fair asking me about trespass to chattels!

    I was talking strictly about whether the police have a right to do it, and if it's legal for them to do it without a warrant then it necessarily follows that you don't have a trespass claim.  If we're talking about a private citizen spying on you, then you might well have a private right of action.


    We have one hope to (none / 0) (#14)
    by standingup on Wed Aug 13, 2008 at 02:11:02 PM EST
    get politicians to act on this.  It can be used on them just as easily as it is any other citizen.  

    this is SOO last year! (5.00 / 1) (#23)
    by roger on Wed Aug 13, 2008 at 02:44:57 PM EST
    I have a case now where the cops asked nextel to use the gps in my guy's cellphone.

    BTW- in florida, illegal use of a gps (that means non-cop use) is a third degree felony

    At some point... (5.00 / 1) (#35)
    by desertswine on Wed Aug 13, 2008 at 03:33:25 PM EST
    all new cars will contain these tracking devices. They'll give a readout of location, where the car has been, how fast it was driven and where it stopped. And they'll tell you its for your own protection in case the car is stolen.

    OnStar (none / 0) (#1)
    by Campionrules on Wed Aug 13, 2008 at 01:24:06 PM EST
    I think it would be easier just co-op the companies that provide navigation and theft prevention services.

    An interesting side argument (none / 0) (#16)
    by CST on Wed Aug 13, 2008 at 02:29:51 PM EST
    For GPS tracking.

    Traffic engineers would love to be able to track every car on the road, in order to time signals more efficiently and avoid capacity problems on roadways.  The main detraction has always been the civil liberties argument.

    Question for TLers, would you be more pro-GPS if it meant you could avoid traffic congestion?  Especially if you know the cops can do it anyway...

    Personally, I am on the liberty side - no GPS, although it would make my job a lot easier.

    No GPS.... (none / 0) (#18)
    by kdog on Wed Aug 13, 2008 at 02:33:19 PM EST
    I'll take traffic over benevolent tyranny anyday.

    what makes you think (none / 0) (#36)
    by cpinva on Wed Aug 13, 2008 at 03:33:31 PM EST
    it's benevolent?

    I'll take traffic over benevolent tyranny anyday.

    Not the tracking... (none / 0) (#40)
    by kdog on Wed Aug 13, 2008 at 04:59:51 PM EST
    without a warrant, CST's hypothetical about using GPS to study traffic and improve traffic conditions...a noble cause.  But I'd still say no way Jose.

    Unless that was a rhetorical question:)


    Pretty simple (none / 0) (#19)
    by Steve M on Wed Aug 13, 2008 at 02:36:51 PM EST
    You wouldn't need to transmit any kind of identifying information in order to avoid traffic congestion.  So there doesn't have to be a privacy violation to do this sort of thing.

    Wouldn't need to (none / 0) (#22)
    by CST on Wed Aug 13, 2008 at 02:44:14 PM EST
    Doesn't always translate into wouldn't happen.

    In order to identify travel patterns to get the full benefit of GPS, you would need some kind of ID even if it didn't relate back to the actual driver/car in any way.


    Well (none / 0) (#25)
    by Steve M on Wed Aug 13, 2008 at 02:48:22 PM EST
    I would settle for less than the "full benefit" if that would make it non-objectionable.

    I think a lot of folks would have a problem with the concept of a massive government database of everywhere their car travels.


    As a degreed Civil Engineer (none / 0) (#21)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Wed Aug 13, 2008 at 02:44:14 PM EST
    with a number of years in transportation design, I really question this.

    There might be some very minor tweaks to traffic signals and such that you can do with the info gained by GPS tracking on every car - and not by just counting cars like they do now - but in the main, I don't see much benefit.

    Although this is interesting (to me anyway), do you have an article or something you're referencing?


    Agreed (none / 0) (#24)
    by eric on Wed Aug 13, 2008 at 02:47:41 PM EST
    we have a good system of cameras, freeway information signs, metered ramps, etc., but no amount of tweaking is going to change the fact that too many people want to get from point a to point b and there is only one way to get there.

    Often times, I'll see the sign that says congestion is ahead, and there is nothing I can do because there is nowhere else to go.


    No specific article (none / 0) (#29)
    by CST on Wed Aug 13, 2008 at 03:00:59 PM EST
    I am also a traffic engineer (with a degree although less experience :)), so I have read a number of articles over the years debating the pro's and con's.

    From where I sit, I think it would make a huge difference as far as data collection for traffic volume calculations are concerned.  Right now, when we look at existing conditions, it's really just a snapshot of a specific day, or if you're lucky, week.  Which is incredibly inaccurate for estimating trips.  Real-time data would improve this accuracy significantly.

    As for signal timing improvements, with GPS data, you could theoretically hold cars back to keep roadways from reaching capacity, and also, eventually automate driving to a certain extent.  You would also be able to propose alternate routes based on traffic patterns if the traffic network could send data as well as receive it.

    Theoretically you can do a lot, whether or not it would work out that way is certainly debatable.


    Fair enough. (none / 0) (#34)
    by sarcastic unnamed one on Wed Aug 13, 2008 at 03:33:15 PM EST
    Funny - where I live - every time those (none / 0) (#28)
    by inclusiveheart on Wed Aug 13, 2008 at 02:57:46 PM EST
    traffic engineers change something the traffic seems to get worse not better.

    So I don't know that the premise of your question is even valid.  lol


    Fair enough... (5.00 / 1) (#31)
    by CST on Wed Aug 13, 2008 at 03:06:40 PM EST

    That may be the intent of your traffic engineers.  There is a thing called "traffic calming" that is designed to make words worse, so fewer people drive on them.  It's an effect of "NIMBY", where people don't want people driving down their street.  So they put in a cul-de-sac, and then everyone ends up on one-road since none of the others let you through.

    But don't get me started, I hate suburban growth patterns...  Although that may not be what you're referring to, to which I say, we all make mistakes sometimes :)


    I live in DC - modeled on the (none / 0) (#32)
    by inclusiveheart on Wed Aug 13, 2008 at 03:18:03 PM EST
    midieval city of Paris which was designed to thwart advances of invaders - we have a daily invasion and retreat from the suburbs which is more and more painful every year.

    Aside from all of the other reasons that I'd like to see Barack Obama win the White House, the change of party and administration will offer some much needed relief on the short cuts that us natives use that the Bushies have discovered after being here as long as they have.  I welcome the good people of Illinois to my home city!  It will take them a few years to build up the confidence to use the park roads without getting lost :) lol

    But seriously, they may be trying to deter traffic and I know in certain ritzier sections of town they are, but all they are doing is driving people onto the side streets where the ritzy people live that tried to impede the traffic in the first place.


    Legislation? (none / 0) (#17)
    by Ben Masel on Wed Aug 13, 2008 at 02:33:15 PM EST
    Represntative Baldwin told me in June she'd be introducing a location Privacy Act for, hopefully, passage next year. We were discussing cellphones, but next I get a chance I'll see if GPS devices can be added.

    where's my tin foil hat when I need it (none / 0) (#20)
    by DandyTIger on Wed Aug 13, 2008 at 02:42:05 PM EST
    ... Actually as funny as the tin foil hat idea is (keeping the CIA from reading your thoughts), now I see research where they are learning how to effect your thoughts.

    Of course whatever they do, there's always a hacking or social engineering solution around it. It's just irritating that we have to work really hard if we want to be anonymous.

    My car and my cell phone always know where I am, and so do some people out there if they want to, and by extension government agencies that want to. That's really irritating.

    And like a poster above said, there are watermarks set by cameras and printers, so you can't even do fun things with those anymore. Well of course you can buy those anonymously, but one image or print can be matched with others. Lesson there: make sure your criminal use camera or printer is used for that purpose only. :-)

    Now where's that hat...

    Is there any way to find out if you've been GPS (none / 0) (#37)
    by jawbone on Wed Aug 13, 2008 at 04:23:15 PM EST

    Some kind of electronic "finder" for a GPS bug?

    I'll bet disabling the tracking feature on a new car will void the warranty...??

    Correct me if I'm wrong (none / 0) (#38)
    by lizpolaris on Wed Aug 13, 2008 at 04:32:06 PM EST
    but IIRC, the govt can easily find out your location by tracking your cell phone location.  Why bother with a separate GPS?

    Am I wearing a tin-foil hat here?  I thought this was common ho-hum we're ignoring this knowledge now...

    Some knuckleheads... (none / 0) (#41)
    by kdog on Wed Aug 13, 2008 at 05:05:10 PM EST
    such as myself don't carry cell phones.

    I refuse to get the EZ pass for the tolls too...I'll sit on the longer line and be free to be paranoid.

    But if they can slap some tracking device on your ride without your knowledge...that's not kosher.