Our view Should warrantless GPS tracking be allowed USATODAYcom

Drivers who remember having to use maps or ask for directions are probably still astonished at how GPS units have aided road navigation. Thanks to satellites,it’s hard to get lost anymore.

  • The Supreme Court will weigh in on the issue of warrantless GPS tracking.

    By Evan Vucci,,AP

    The Supreme Court will weigh in on the issue of warrantless GPS tracking.

By Evan Vucci,,AP

The Supreme Court will weigh in on the issue of warrantless GPS tracking.

But breakthroughs such as the Global Positioning System always come with unforeseen complications,and just as with smart phones and the Internet,the complication with GPS technology is privacy. With GPS,police can plant a locator on your vehicle and track where you are second by second on a remote computer screen.

This is an important and effective tool for law enforcement,but its widespread use has sharply divided the courts. Some judges say it’s no big deal;GPS locators simply allow the police to do with technology what they would otherwise do by tailing someone on public streets,where no one has an expectation of privacy.

But other courts have said — correctly,we think — that surreptitiously planting GPS devices on suspects’vehicles and tracking them 24/7 for days on end is the sort of invasive electronic monitoring that should require the government to prove probable cause to a judge and get a warrant,just as police have to do to tap your phone.

Now the Supreme Court has agreed to settle the issue,and we hope the justices interpret the constitutional right to privacy broadly — not just because it’s deeply worrisome to give the government an unfettered right to track anyone on any pretext,but also because these are just the early days of working out how privacy law will apply to endless new ways to watch all Americans.

As tracking tools,cameras and other devices get tinier,cheaper,more widespread and more capable,it will be possible to monitor people in ways that are hard to imagine today. The Fourth Amendment right to privacy has never been more crucial,and this case could define it in ways that will last for years.


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As often happens in disputes over core rights such as privacy or free speech,the case that brings this issue to the high court evokes no sympathy for the defendant. In 2005,a joint FBI-police operation caught an alleged crack cocaine dealer in Washington,D.C.,after planting a GPS device on his Jeep and tracking him for 28 days. A federal appeals court threw out his conviction because the device had been placed without a warrant.

The government typically argues in cases like this that GPS tracking is no different from assigning officers to physically track someone,but the appeals court noted how wildly impractical,costly and unlikely that is.

As for whether someone should expect any privacy on public streets,the appeals court again applied a common sense test,noting that the likelihood that anyone would observe all of someone’s movements on public streets for 28 days “is not just remote,it is essentially nil.”By contrast,the court said,prolonged police monitoring by GPS “reveals an intimate picture of the subject’s life that he expects no one to have — short perhaps of his spouse.”

Most GPS tracking by law enforcement is surely justified,but the long,sad history of giving government unbridled power is that it inevitably gets abused. Even national security authorities are required to apply to the special Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act court for warrants to tap the phones of suspected terrorists.

Are the needs of police tracking drug dealers and other common criminals really more urgent? “Trust us”is not a valid substitute for requiring police to go before a judge and show why they need to monitor someone as thoroughly as a GPS device allows,and it’s hardly an unreasonable burden.

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