back to article US Supremes liken GPS tracking to 1984's Big Brother

If the Obama administration wins a crucial case testing when police may use GPS devices to track American's whereabouts, investigators would be free to attach them to all nine members of the nation's highest court without a warrant. That blunt assessment came not from one of the many critics blasting the controversial practice …


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  1. Stratman


    “Merely watching a suspect in a city street was obviously not a search or seizure,” he wrote. “Does that change if you switch to video cameras? Lots of cameras? Beepers? GPS devices? Where do you draw the line?”


    Watching a suspect, either with CCTV or Mk1 eyeball, are purely passive.

    Bugging a suspect without a warrant isn't passive, it's active. That's the difference.

    1. David Kelly 2

      Its all active

      Any act of following/tailing or just observing a suspect's location is "active".

      The protection is against "unreasonable" search and/or seizure, not against active observation. It would be unreasonable to search the vehicle without warrant. A tracking device on the vehicle does not inconvenience the suspect and the whole point of the law isn't to restrict evidence that may be collected but to prevent authorities from hassling and bullying with searches.

  2. Originone

    If the verdict is that using gps trackers without a warrant is ok, would that mean that anyone can stick a tracker on a vehicle without breaking a law?

    1. Lance 3

      No, as it is legal to do today. The Constitution that prohibits illegal search and seizure is aimed at the government, as well as the rest of the document as well. Like freedom of speech is to make sure the government doesn't try to silence those that oppose it or its actions. An employer can limit your freedom of speech as the constitution does not apply. So, you can attach GPS tracking vehicle to any vehicle you want, it is not illegal. Going on private property to attach it, that can be illegal.

      The FBI better contact the FCC as LightSquared might make GPS tracking a thing of the past with their network.

      1. Eddy Ito

        @Lance 3

        "So, you can attach GPS tracking vehicle to any vehicle you want, it is not illegal."

        I disagree. The instant you attach a GPS tracker, or anything else for that matter, to a vehicle belonging to someone else you commit a trespass. It isn't really any different than setting up a peep-show cam on their bathroom window. The fact that you can set up the shower cam by using a really long pole from the street doesn't change that. Likewise, tapping the phone line from the street isn't any different and is therefore illegal for a private citizen or the government without a warrant.

        1. Lance 3

          @Eddy Ito

          It is NOT a trespass in the legal definition. They could sue you, but they would have to show damages, of which, there would be NONE.

          A peep show cam is covered under different laws AND you would need to enter their property to install the camera. Attaching a GPS tracker would not require that as you could wait until the car is someplace else, like PUBLIC property. The house would never be on PUBLIC property. Most states have a peeping tom law which is what that camera would be covered under.

          1. Eddy Ito

            @Lance 3

            Granted, IANAL but It is a trespass to chattels and damages aren't always required as it depends on what jurisdiction you are in. As it turns out trespass to chattels is nearly always a tort and not criminal however so most likely one would have to sue. I do feel it almost certainly is a form of vandalism in that it does incur an expense to correct and would lower the value of the vehicle if it was sold. Perhaps the scraped knee, bumped head or other physical injury resulting from removing it may also qualify as damages.

            That said, it would be easy to have a house on community property, if not public property, such as a condo where the house is private but the land belongs to the community. Also the long pole I mentioned wouldn't necessarily mean "leaving" public property provided you were wearing a handy law enforcement provided GPS ankle bracelet which would prove you didn't enter private property to place the handycam and burning the broomstick clears the evidence problem.

            Now then, the easy thing to do is take it off the car and attach it on the nearest ISO container bound for travels across the globe and snigger every time you see a train, truck or ship go by.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      I wonder how well that would stick if private citizens started tracking cops, politicians ...

    3. E 2


      We could stick GPS trackers on politician's cars and police cars, and make the resultant data public.

    4. David Kelly 2

      Yes, but in all fairness, Finders Keepers! If your target finds the tracker then you lost it.

  3. E 2

    Yes but

    GPS lets iPhone users located all the Starbucks shops in their immediate vicinity. Surely that is worth giving up some freedom?

  4. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge


    Isn't there already an app that tells you the location of all the massage parlours and donut shops?

  5. Simon Neill

    Difficult issue.

    On the one hand, I have no problem with someone knowing everywhere I drive. 95% of it is to work and back.

    On the OTHER hand, if this sort of thing becomes legal we start slapping the things EVERYWHERE and false positives become a massive risk.

    Lets say we are tracking a serial killer, he's killed 3 people. So we slap 20,000 GPS units on random cars. It turns out that you get a hit on someone who goes to the same 3 places as the killer and arrest them and later jail them on that basis. Oops, it was just coincidence and their defense lawyer sucked.

    I know, its an extreme situation. It probably wouldn't happen on the grounds that 20,000 * 3000 pages is a metric ****ton of paper, but I hope you see the point I am trying to make.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      "95% of it is to work and back"

      I have no quibble with the point you're trying to make though I want to note that this sort of taking a dragnet to society's data already does happen. Two examples: The database exists so we'll just turn it upside down. Oyster cards are good sources of minable data, gsm networks and phone call records also. Another example is where entire male populations of villages have been DNA-printed to *try* and find a single perpetrator. As such it's not nearly as extreme as one would hope, and such fishing for data will only increase.

      I do have a quibble with that first sentence. You don't mind. I would. There are plenty of people that I wouldn't mind knowing (hey, it'd mean I *have* a job again, nice! I'd probably tell them myself!) but there are far, far more people (some seven milliard minus some assorted family, friends, neighbours) that I would mind knowing even this sort of "publicly available" information. Yes, it's public, just have to watch me go to work. But what do they need with the information? In certain, extreme, cases (unsmiling, humourless men in dark suits and darker glasses) it suddenly becomes much more important for me to know why they're interested than that they can possibly be interested in me.

      If they don't strictly need the information, then they shouldn't keep it. Basic privacy principle.* Also a basic security principle.** That goes even for simple things like, well, commuting.

      * Though it's one of the hardest to enforce if knowing becomes a free action.

      ** This is also another reason why I prefer to vary routes; if possible pick a slightly different one every day. Others include avoiding tedium, keeping up with the neighbourhood, that sort of thing. It's not all about being paranoid, you know.

    2. O RLY

      Re: difficult issue

      While it's easy to understand your statement that it's not a big deal, that's because you live in a country where one can obstensibly trust the government. If this were Syria, it would have much more sinister concerns.

      Since we live in a world where governments, even "free" governments regularly overstep their bounds, the standard should be toward the protection of the innocent, even if that means some guilty go free. That notion dates back thousands of years and is included as a facet of the Abrahamic religions that helped shape Western Civilization. (Not intending to start a religious discussion, just pointing out that the idea that protection of the innocent from injustice is not new and dates to the era in which Genesis was written or earlier.) We also live in a world where it's not been yet 40 years since the Iberian dictators fell. We have EU members that lived under tyranny only 20 years ago. As there is no EU state that has not suffered tyrannical rule, we should remain ever vigilant to the equipment of governments with the tools of oppression. Tracking devices that don't require oversight from the courts fit that bill for me.

    3. Michael Wojcik Silver badge

      metric ****ton of paper

      No, it's not. All that data would go into a database, and be processed with the same techniques people are using on other big-data problems. This doesn't even require much expertise, given the free frameworks and tools available, and the vast computing resources many people have access to.

      2e4 * 3e3 pages? Let's say there's 1KB of data per page (likely a gross overestimate*); that's only about 60MB of data. That can be trivially searched on a laptop for drivers who were at all three locations.

      * I'm basing that on my experience teaching and studying writing, including technical and report writing; and I'm assuming uncompressed English text and numbers in these "reports".

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "Where do you draw the line?"

    As so often, this is the kicker. Already mentioned here is active vs. passive, but even that can become convoluted. Say, sticking a camera on a tree isn't exactly /passive/ even if you deem the thing recording to be so. If you have to trespass to give it a good view or even just a suitable place to hang out, that's another problem. Even "staring" from public property onto someone's private property by electronic device, even if it's otherwise small and inconspicuous, that can easily be unreasonable. So we're back at square one. Where to draw the line?

    From the point of view that police, or any government agent, shouldn't have it too easy; they have to /work/ to get into your face, which is sort-of the point of the American Constitution, you could turn it all on its head and say that because obviously any electronics make agents lazy, they require a warrant. If you want to spy without a warrant, go out and stake-out yourself, in person. That suddenly puts a whole different face on the matter: Your victi^Wtargets have a sporting chance to spot you.

    Another extreme view would be that anything they can attach to (but not actually modify) cars, houses, telephone wires, trees, whatever, might be fair game. But in return, you might say, any counter-devices might be fair game. Do we want to "weaponise" our society?

    I think trying to shoehorn this into a constitutional question is, as so often, a bit forced. Getting dangerously closely comparable to high priests trying to match the latest of technology's advancements to gospel written thousands of years ago. Maybe it's easier to decide just what you want and make a law (or even another amendment) to clarify how electronics use maps onto that protection against "unreasonable" search. Because, just what is this "reasonable" you speak of?

    Personally I favour recognising that society is about humans, and not about the technology we make, and cost of putting men on the street be damned. Nevermind that those goverment issue apparatuses aren't exactly cheap either. There's too much security theatre going on already; cut all that and suddenly there's seas of budget to go after perpetrators of actual crimes causing real, demonstratable harm.

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Not a problem in the UK

    Poor USians don't have a ubiquitous ANPR network that stores all vehicle movements for seven years. Who needs GPS, or going and sticking things to cars, or worrying about jammers?

  8. James Micallef Silver badge
    Big Brother

    where do you draw the line?

    First of all make the case law future-proof by not just considering the status quo, but also what technology will be like in 10-20 years, ie high probability that the police / feds / other could, if allowed to do so without a warrant, attach a tiny dot on each and every car in the country and have the bandwidth and computer power to monitor every movement in real time, keep years of historic data and be able to mine that data effectively.

    Then you wake up screaming at that nightmare scenario and insist on a warrant. Given the ever-increasing reach and capability of tech, we should be demanding the use of warrants for more and more scenarios, not less and less

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      You do realise that is pretty much what the last zanuLabour party gov. wanted.

      That is why they kept trying to tell everyone that charging road tax by useage was a good idea. They would enforce the installation of GPS trackers in every vehicle in the country.

      They would have probably added RFID hardware while at it to go with the ID cards, to track every individual just to be sure.

  9. Your Retarded

    "track American's whereabouts"

    Which American are we talking about here?

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