No More GPS Tracking Without a Warrant

January 31st, 2012 by Andrea Bennett

Is the Supreme Court ruling a victory for privacy or for criminals?

Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project

The Supreme Court unanimously ruled it illegal to digitally track a person’s vehicle without a warrant. "The government's installation of a GPS device on a target's vehicle, and its use of that device to monitor the vehicle's movements, constitutes a 'search,'" said Justice Antonin Scalia, representing the five-justice majority. Privacy advocates, of course, rejoiced. But like so many rulings about privacy, this is a polarizing issue, and some Americans are outraged – what if this is just a way for lawbreakers and terrorists to go undetected longer? 

In fact, in a Forbes story following the ruling, columnist David Coursey went so far as to say, “It’s a great day to be a criminal or terrorist, thanks to the US Supreme Court,” adding that the ruling by the nation’s highest court is “simply wrong.” His contention is that the move puts law enforcement officers at increased risk and emboldens criminals, as they’ll understand the hoops that officials will have to jump through to show probable cause for a warrant.

The ruling hinged on a case summarized in Bloomberg Businessweek: The justices unanimously overturned the drug conviction of Antoine Jones, maintaining that police officers “encroached on a protected area” when they attached a global-positioning system device to Jones’ car without a valid warrant.

Other justices used more sweeping reasoning, saying police might violate the constitutional ban on unreasonable searches even when they obtain GPS signals without having to attach a device to a car. With vehicles increasingly coming pre-equipped with GPS technology, officers might not need to attach an additional device in future cases.

However, as Coursey noted in the Forbes piece, since GPS units simply document a public activity, some opponents of the ruling are arguing that GPS tracking doesn’t violate anyone’s rights. Certainly, a drone aircraft overhead, which police already use, could provide the same physical surveillance. Their argument raises a bigger question: When will any form of surveillance of public activities require a warrant? 

Kade Crockford takes the anti-GPS-tracking argument a step further, arguing in a Boston.com editorial that the ruling doesn’t go far enough. “Given the government's keen interest in mobile phone tracking and obtaining information about us from third party holders without warrants,” Crockford says, “these issues could not be more important.” 

Where do you fall on the warrantless GPS tracking debate? Think privacy rights should be protected – even at the possible expense of officer safety and criminal activity – or that this ruling doesn’t do enough to protect privacy?