back to article US court urged to block warrantless GPS tracking

The Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union are waging a legal challenge against what they say is law enforcement's growing use of global positioning system location-tracking devices often without first seeking a warrant. In a friend-of-the-court brief filed Tuesday, EFF attorneys argued that FBI …


This topic is closed for new posts.
  1. Eugene Goodrich
    Paris Hilton

    Client-server connection is encrypted, right?

    Nobody could interfere with the transmission of that data, resulting in a suspicion of taint for future cases, could they?

    That's what happened with some red-light camera evidence, as I recall: it had no provisions to ensure the metadata was untampered.

    Paris; viz "suspicion of taint".

  2. Kanhef

    Probably legal

    They were tracking the vehicle, not the person, so they didn't actually "know the suspect's whereabouts 24 hours a day". They wouldn't know which store he goes to in a mall, or which office in a skyscraper, and would be fooled if someone else borrowed his car.

    A warrant isn't needed to follow a vehicle around, radioing coordinates every few minutes (which is what the GPS device effectively does), as long as it's on public roads. Private property is a different matter, which is why the judge suppressed some of the data.

    Still, having a court order wouldn't hurt. They probably should have gotten one in order to go onto private property to plant the device, but I don't think that will be enough to have the evidence entirely dismissed.

  3. Slaytanic

    Bring on the personal GPS tracking!!

    Why is this tech being wasted on cars, when the "law" could insist that everyone must wear/implant these things. I've got nothing to hide, so nothing to fear. The "law" always has my best interest at heart, and would do nothing to hurt a law abiding citizen like me. Just think of the added benefits of having a personal GPS unit. The data could be sold to 3rd parties too, like advertisers and insurance companies, who would also have my best interest at heart. Just can't wait to be hooked up to the GPS grid so I can feel safer!!

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Paris Hilton

    Raises interesting questions

    Are they really doing anything they couldn't do by just "tailing" the vehicle (for which a warrant is not needed)?

    Does the fact they can just attach the device and go back to the office make it any different?

    I can see why Law Enforcement types would like this idea so much:

    - no long boring hours waiting for the suspect to get in their car and go somewhere

    - less chance of being detected (no suspicious vehicles following)

    - they can make more efficient use of their time.

    There are some obvious drawbacks though:

    - can't prove the suspect was in the vehicle

    - doesn't catch trips made in other vehicles

    - it's easy to avoid (using hire cars etc)

    Paris, cos I'm confused by what all the hoopla is about

  5. Dave

    GPS Jammers

    If they do it too much then someone will take the trouble to develop a decent GPS jammer. All you need to do is synthesize a decent signal set at a signal level high enough to swamp the real signals and you could drive around all day while apparently being parked on your drive. Of course, anyone nearby using a GPS for other purposes will also mysteriously end up on your drive as well... Net result would be that GPS usefulness would degrade as the spectrum got swamped with compatible signals. I've used a GPS simulator, good bit of kit but still a bit large and expensive for general use by wannabe villains.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward



    And what safeguards are there to prevent the target from discovering the tracker and attaching it to his neighbours car?

  7. nae

    find the device

    stick it on a neighbours car and relax

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Black Helicopters

    All of this technology...

    is used for just one thing. To reduce the cost of running the Police / FBI / SOCA / etc. If one 'officer' (or rather a much cheaper civy) can use a computerised system to track 10 or 100 'suspects' then that looks better in the budget reports than 10 or 100 'officers' used to track one 'suspect'.

    Not having a warrant also saves time and costs. Why trouble a busy judge or magistrate when you can just go ahead and you know that on official is going to complain, the public might, but who takes any notice of them?

    No all of this is just to save costs while providing a "Better Service" (TM) Just don't ask who is actually the benificiary of this service.

  9. Christoph

    Vehicle tagging darts

    Have the Los Angeles criminals managed yet to acquire this technology so they can tag and track the police cars?

  10. Anonymous Coward

    The real WTF...

    ... Is that they just printed the data raw, all 3100 pages of it? I'm fairly sure they could have presented it just a bit more efficiently here!

  11. Harry

    Author doesn't understand GPS

    "surveillance of his or her movements and associations by a network of satellites constantly feeding data to a remote computer"

    That's not the way GPS works. The satellites don't know where the GPS receivers are. Only the GPS receiver knows that. So presumably, in addition to the GPS receiver, they must also have planted a radio transmitter and will be picking up position information from that, NOT from the satellites.

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    They are tracking the car - so what. Just because the car was at the scene doesn't prove that the person was.

  13. John Smith Gold badge


    "All you need to do is synthesize a decent signal set at a signal level high enough to swamp the real signals"

    Couple of points.

    For simple jamming a narrow band spot unit which took into account the satellites Doppler shifted transmission frequencies might suffice.

    Jammers have been developed but part of the point of the spread spectrum modulation used is to broaden the actual bandwidth needing a broadband c1MHz for civilian signal to trash the data.

    But if you want to actively mislead the tracker (how can fitting one of these not need a warrant?) you need to do signal simulation. That amounts to a repeating 12000 bit data block split into 300bit pages. Some parts are common to all satellites in the constellation, some differ. Some compensate for satellite motion and are re-calc'd on a regular basis. Modern GPS Rx use multi channel receivers so you'll need to take the data stream and run them through the relevant sats spread code before sending them up the antenna. Normal ASICs have 12-15 channels. Producing a GPS signal usable by experimental hardware is complex but doable. Pretending to be a GPS sat constellation (with convincing parameter changes) is rather tougher but the kicker is this.

    GPS has an L1 and L2 signal. One is civilian, standard resolution and can be deliberately degraded. The other has 10x the bandwidth and much greater accuracy (<3m without outside help IIRC). The data is encrypted. The civilian channel transmits the keys as it can be acquired quickly. Civilian repeat cycle is 1ms. Military is c1 week. Military spread codes are secret as is encryption method. As the GPS on the Shuttle uses the military code it would seem likely (but not necessary) that the FBI is "suitably qualified" to use it as well.

    The original GPS military encryption was designed in the 1970s, like DES. It would be effectively unbreakable with the PCs of the time and may (should) have been updated to a newer method. However given the longevity of military hardware perhaps it has not. If so its a lot more vulnerable.Z80 Vs Pentium 5 anyone?

    Amateur GPS receivers have been done in various ways but no one seems to have talked about a military grade unit and most seemed to have been tested against the real sats. Some universities have simulators.

    NB. This is all open literature stuff in the spirit of a level playing field. (EW&W in the early 90s for the SW GPS Rx using bit counting on a Transputer to track 12 in parallel for example). A spoofing simulator would certainly have a market in some circles. But there's a lot going on in one of those simulator boxes. Pulling it off would be a substantial achievement. GHz frequency RF has a lot of demand these days.

    OTH the trackers back channel.....

  14. r

    GPS jamming

    What's with all this talk of sophisticated GPS jamming devices? I find that being under a tree almost always blocks GPS signals. All you gotta do is have a tree growing out of your sunroof. Simple.

    Mine's the coat with the Sequoia tree in the pocket. Or am I just pleased to see you?

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Goose and Gander

    If it's legal for the police to attach a device to my car, then surely it must be legal for me to attach a device to a police car.

  16. Rolf Howarth
    Black Helicopters

    slippery slope

    The point isn't about how foolproof or otherwise GPS tagging is or how the technology works. It's the principle of how far one should allow snooping by new technology just because it's easy or possible. Suppose you're suspicious your spouse is having an affair, should you be allowed to put a GPS tracker on his or her vehicle? Suppose the police learn about a private party where they suspect illegal drugs may be used. Should they be allowed to attach a GPS tracker to every vehicle parked on the street and monitor them for a month on a trawling expedition, just in case any of them happen to go near to any known drug dealers?

    Of course the authorities need to be able to monitor suspects to help them in their efforts to combat serious crime but there has to be some cost attached to this process (eg. the effort to obtain a warrant) so they only do so in those cases where there genuinely are reasonable grounds for suspicion. Otherwise, if it's too easy to do, everyone (even the vast majority of us who are completely innocent of any wrongdoing) will end up routinely being monitored and treated as a suspect, with all sorts of worrying consequences. For example, you park outside the wrong house one day and although there's no evidence of a crime to prosecute you with, you suddenly find there's a black mark against your record and you're denied the chance of a job in teaching. Is that really the sort of society you want to be living in?

  17. Lukin Brewer

    Remind me,

    is it illegal/criminal to remove or interfere with a police bug or tracking device on your property?

    "Sure, you were able to keep your dabs off the money laundering operation, Sfonzini, but we got a good set off that microphone you removed. That's unlawful interference to start with, and when we match the shoe prints, it'll be criminal damage too."

  18. Chris C

    Same action, different method

    In the old days, the authorities would put two people in a car and have them follow the suspect. The same can be done with aerial surveillance (helicopter, RC copter/plane, etc). Quite possibly, it might even be accomplished using live satellite imagery. The point is, the only difference in this case is that the suspect's vehicle was tracked by planting a GPS-capable tracker on it.

    While I'm no friend of Big Brother, here's a newsflash for people -- when you're in public, you have no reasonable expectation of privacy. That's why they call it PUBLIC -- because it's not PRIVATE. "Not private" equals no reasonable expectation of privacy. The same is true for people who leave their blinds/curtains open and then complain about "invasion of privacy" when someone happens to look through the window.

    There was another case a while back about the FBI using the OnStar-type device in a suspect's car without the suspect's knowledge. The only reason the judge blocked them from doing it was because the suspect would not be able to contact the assistance people in an emergency.

  19. Jonathan Richards
    Thumb Down

    @AC: Goose and Gander

    If... then...

    No, I don't think so. Police forces exercise rights that the citizen doesn't have, e.g. the power of arrest [1], access to databases not open to the public, and so forth. The anserine symmetry you suggest just doesn't exist.

    [1] The semi-mythical right of Citizen's Arrest is, in the UK at least, much more limited than lots of people believe. Use with care! IANAL, yadda yadda.

  20. Anonymous Coward

    The problem is bigger than we thought

    What with the ability to track people via their cell phones, EZ Pass (and its clones) and OnStar, etc. We could ALL be tracked one fine day...

  21. Anonymous Coward

    I think some people are missing the point

    The point is that we're turning our countries into Police States. Civil liberties are slowly, but surely, being eroded and we're turning into nations that roll over and allow full on surveilance of everyone. We're also slowly allowing governments to tell us what to do and when to do it.

    Everything's being done under the guise of "it being for our own good" - but in the past people had more civil freedoms and were allowed to think for themselves, decide what actions to take and be responsible for taking those actions.

    The tide's turning now so that there will come a point that we will just do as we're told, like robots. Yes, a lot of crime will be prevented, but at what cost? The problem with humanity is that corruption exists - and we're giving more and more power to just a few people. It will also make it easier for authorities to provide false information and get rid of deemed "troublemakers" that threaten authoritarian power.

    Whilst I'm all for crime being looked into and surveillance when necessary, there should have to be thought go into (and as someone else put a real cost involved with) such surveillance. It shouldn't be easy and cheap enough to be able to just decide to spy on people on whim and just in case - and that's where we're heading.

    As I heard a while ago, "They're turning our communities into one huge prison".

    I'm sorry, but didn't the world fight a war just over 50 years ago to protect freedom? Weren't Hitler's practices of spying on everyone deemed unnecessary?

    Next they'll be setting up phonelines and require everyone to report weekly on their neighbours, and setting up "Surveillance Youth" - a youth club to brainwash teenagers and getting them to report on their friends.

    Xenu - because his followers in Scientology know all about keeping people brainwashed, "virtually" imprisoned, and spying on everyone involved.

  22. John Smith Gold badge

    let me keep it simple

    "Police work is only easy in a Police state." Joseph Wambaugh. Ex LAPD patrol officer and author

    Do you believe that a state which allows, enables and then encourages its officers to use effectively on-demand surveillance of anyone, at any time, without probable cause is going to make you safer?

    Think carefully, especially about that "Probable cause" bit. Its part of one (US Dictionary) definition of "Liberty."

  23. Bounty


    If I only do my stalking in public is it still stalking? If I stand in front of you in the park (once) and scream death metal, that's legal. If I do it constantly it's not, it's harassment and you can get a restraining order.

    While I don't expect total and complete privacy in public, I do expect that my overall movments from place to place and my shopping habbits and my personal, individual daily actions are not being tracked. I believe this is reasonable, and I think most people would agree.

    Next week they'll be sticking GPS (plus cell tower triangulation) trackers to your shoes while you're in the gym. All while technology gets better, more accurate, better back end databases. Soon you'll have a 3D picture linked with Google earth/streetview liked to cameras etc. at HQ with every person on "public property" or in the "open fields" tagged. Everytime anyone with a misdemeanor walks into a store satelites will link up in space, hard drives will spin up and a glowing red dot will highlight your position and tell cameras to zoom in. Have you been talking to other "subvertives" while "in public" or going to their residences lately? Doesn't matter if you've ever broken the law or been a suspect, they're watching you.

  24. Kanhef

    @John Smith

    If you read about the circumstances of this case, you'll note that they *had* probable cause to track the guy. There is NOTHING that indicates they intend to use this against arbitrary persons without cause. I'm getting tired of reading the paranoid whacko rants here.

  25. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Down

    so if they had "probably cause"

    It wouldn't have been difficult to get a court warrant for the tracking...same as they do for intercepting phone calls (unlike the NSA which just does it without any warrant or reason).

    Hoping the judges remember the constitution and throw out all the "evidence"...which apparently really ISN"T; since it apparently only proves the location of the vehicle with no substantiating evidence of location of the alleged perp.

    damn stasi

  26. John Smith Gold badge

    @Kanhef AC@01:55

    My knowledge of the case is limited to Register coverage. I re-read it, along with the brief. The story states Jones and 4 others are indicted, as in not convicted. Perhaps you are more up to date?

    So 1 (of several) questions would be how much of the "probable cause" is due to the information collected from this. If they had probable cause already a warrant would avoid getting bogged down in this argument. If the tracking records are the bulk of the evidence have they just buried the judge in a paper blizzard("This man's records cover 3100+pages of movement over a month. He' clearly up to something!)

    Or rather his car is. That is what is being tracked. And arrangements exist for getting a warrant(according to the brief) to cover fitting a "beeper". I would have guessed its nearest equivalent would be the telephone "Pen register" trace of dialled phone numbers and their duration. interesting info, establishes patterns but not actual proof and presumably available with a lower standard of 'cause.

    @AC “It wouldn't have been difficult to get a court warrant for the tracking”

    It certainly looks that way

    The point is putting on a GPS tracker (not a bleeper) and not going for a warrant is a a near zero cost option for the FBI. Its *very* cheap. If they go to trial and their prosecutors can con-vince the jury that where his car is is virtually the same as where he is and that is where drugs were sold he's as good as convicted. Drinks all round. Job done.

    So why bother with warranted surveillance and showing 'cause on the next case either?

    Work up a decent conviction rate with this evidence and said prosecutor gets to write a memo explaining how they get such good results at so little cost to the taxpayer. Its not ruthlessly efficient it is merely efficient. The ruthlessness is simply a free by product.

    Some L&O Con-gress person sees these bang up results and thinks we have mandatory GPS on mobile phones, why not put them on cars as well. Juries will understand its only an indication of where the felon is. But the authorities will need a PIN code to switch it on otherwise we'll swamp the mobile phone network, and reception is bad enough in some cities already.

    Later L&O Con-gress person2 needs to make a name for themselves. This sending a PIN code to a server is *too* slow. Seconds count. Lets have all vehicles report all the time on a special network and if one is stolen or used in a crime we'll know instantly (or within 10 secs) where it is.

    This technology is qualitatively different from the beepers of old. It enables *mass* dragnet surveillance. The background to the Jones case suggests officers who did not have to get a warrant, so they did not bother. That sounds pretty lazy. Ironic as they had to get the kit and presumably as its the FBI the drug supply they are talking about is fair sized. They should have expected him to hire a decent (expensive) lawyer.

    Sorry to disappoint you but the whole dark suited Ivy League types (with a chain smoking henchman) around a darkened board room table plotting the snuffing out of any freedom of movement or association isn't my view of the world. Very sinister. Very dramatic. But complete BS IRL.

    Just lazy cops who can't be bothered to cross t's and dot i's with a new toy, backed up by ambitious prosecutors and ending with some self serving politicians who want "justice" on the cheap.

    Most of them aren't actually bad people and don't see their behaviour as wrong. No lobbyist bribes. No blackmail by shadowy groups with an agenda. Just people being people.

    A basic knowledge of human nature and how it can interact with technology and economics should make anyone concerned at the possibilities.

    If you don't have that then most of this has been rather boring to you. Otherwise perhaps you are powerful enough to ignore such concerns and we are all merely "little people" to you? How nice for you. Or perhaps you are deeply trusting and believe nothing bad can happen to you.

    If the latter I hope your lucky.

  27. Anonymous Coward

    A good lawyer

    wouldn't need to argue about warrants (of course this does add to the bill). A good lawyer would be get the guy off on the reasonable doubt created by the fact the GPS tracker doesn't prove the defendant was anywhere... The evidence doesn't prove the defendant was with the vehicle.

    For those insistent on defeating a tracker, you need to find it first.. to do this you need to know which type is likely to be used:

    Passive GPS tracker - this logs the GPS data, which is downloaded later when the device is retrieved. Since they don't emit any RF they are significantly harder to detect. Law enforcement agencies are less likely to use this type (mainly because they are impatient, that and the need to retrieve the device before getting any information).

    Remotely activated GPS tracker - these are basically a mobile phone with a GPS receiver. The controller sends a request for the current GPS co-ordinates (the ones I've seen use SMS) which the device then sends back (also via SMS). These are easier to detect (with dirt cheap hardware) but are likely to be ignored by all but the most paranoid.

    Realtime GPS tracker - this is an evolution on the Remotely activated GPS trackers. These use 3G internet to provide a (near) realtime GPS feed to a central server These are most likely to be favored by law enforcement (for the realtime aspect if nothing else).

    The good new is that if you detect a GPS tracker, they are trivial to defeat:

    - remove the power supply

    - jam it / wrap it in aluminum foil (why bother when you can just remove the power supply)

    - throw it away / leave it in the garage

    - attach it to someone else car

    - if you're a real geek, take it apart, disassemble the software, find out the server details and the data format being used and have fun spoofing your location (make them think you broke the land speed record... take them on a whirlwind trip around the world).

    Mines the one with designs for a garage sized Faraday cage.

  28. John Smith Gold badge
    Thumb Up

    @AC 12:17

    "A good lawyer would be get the guy off on the reasonable doubt created by the fact the GPS tracker doesn't prove the defendant was anywhere"

    An excellant point. I'm not sure what the rules for getting the FBI involved in a drug trafficking case are but (I'm guessing ) moving substantial weight across state lines would come into it.

    Why would you not think such a person could afford suitably experienced legal representation?

This topic is closed for new posts.

Other stories you might like