GPS, Privacy, and the Supremes

The US Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments for a case on November 8, 2011 that can have an major impact on your privacy/self autonomy and relationship with government.  The case is called, United States v. Jones.  The central questions of the case are as follows:

1. Whether the warrantless use of a GPS tracking device on a person's vehicle to monitor its movements violates the Fourth Amendment.

2. Whether the government violated the person's Fourth Amendment rights by attaching the GPS tracking device to his vehicle without a valid warrant.

The US Government argues that there is no privacy interest for an individual because the person's vehicle was "knowingly" in the public venue.  Other words, where the vehicle goes it can be seen all the time in public.  To bolster their argument they refer to a Supreme Court case that was decided in 1983 which had its origin in Minnesota called United States v. Knotts.  The case states that there is no violation of the Fourth Amendment when "technological enhancements" are used to follow a vehicle when in public view.

It is important to note in 1983, there was no such thing as GPS monitoring devices with links to satellites which gives specific location such as latitude and longitude and also time information.  What was used in the Knotts case was a beeper device where there had to be close monitoring by law enforcement because it relied on radio signals.  This is not the case with the current GPS tracking processes.

With current GPS technology a tracking device could be placed on a vehicle and could track an individuals movements for a week , three weeks, six months, or even a year with no judicial oversight or accountability.

The US Government argues that an individual has no expectation of privacy because a person's movements can be "readily" viewed in the public.  Other arguments voiced by the government is that there is no "widespread, suspicionless" abuse of GPS tracking.  To sum up their argument, GPS tracking "is used to gather information that could be observed by any member of the public, and cars have traditionally been afforded diminished Fourth Amendment protection.

Lying underneath this case is the crucial role of continuing improvement of technology, how law enforcement uses it, and then how to reconcile it with our constitutional protections.

The arguments on the other side of government state the person had a reasonable expectation of privacy not expecting "a satellite-based GPS device would not be affixed to his vehicle and used to generate and permanently store GPS data about his movements and locations." and constitutes a Fourth Amendment search.

Their argument continues that the US Government relies on US Supreme Court decisions that dealt with the "now-antiquated" beeper.  Technology has changed the discussion because location data can now be gotten and stored where it could not be "obtained through visual surveillance."

The case has a great number of Amicus briefs in support of the person and against the US Government position.  From the Cato Institute, ACLU, to Gun Owners of America are some of the organizations.  The briefs of the US Government, Mr Jones, and others can be accessed on the ABA website.

GPS technology can be useful to law enforcement, but at what expense.  Is it at the expense of our self autonomy, individual privacy, and freedom of association?  Should law enforcement be able to place an item on a vehicle with no accountability or independent oversight?  How much of a price are we willing as people to pay for technology's newest addition to law and order?

PERSONAL NOTE:
Back in 1989, the Minnesota Legislature enacted into law procedures for getting a mobile tracking device and a standard for law enforcement.  In 1989, there was only the "beeper" technology.  I was involved in working with members of the Legislature on that legislation.  There should be a legislative hearing in the future to get an idea how technology is advancing, how law enforcement uses it, and impact on our civil liberties.