Tuesday, November 24, 2009

GPS Tracking Devices and Privacy

GPS tracking devices seem to becoming the rage of both government and a variety of business interests. Unfortunately for us citizens, we get the benefit of being tracked at all times through a myriad of potential devices. Before I get to an excellent editorial in the New York Times on this technology, and the continuing legal battle over whether law enforcement has the right to install GPS tracking devices in suspects vehicles, let me really briefly discuss three other recent related battles.

Tracking Farm Animals

As if there aren't enough ways that government and/or big business have found to creep into our lives, monitor our movements, trace our transactions, and listen to our phone calls, there was the story of the Bush Administration wanting to chip animals and have small farmers report nearly everything that happens to them.

I'm talking about - and this isn't a joke - the Bush administration's "National Animal Identification System" initiative. This proposal to "chip" animals with RFID tags isn't just an invasion of privacy (as explained in my post on this subject a year ago), it also would achieve an additional goal of the administration: provide an even greater advantage to agribusiness at the expense of family farms.

See, big industrial farms would have only had to track herds, not individual cattle...unlike small farmers who'd be forced to track each and every one...a HUGE pain, and cost. Family farmers see it as an assault on their way of life by a federal bureaucracy with close ties to industrial agriculture. Privacy advocates, then and now, view a database that would contain all this information as an an invasive, detailed electronic record of farmers' activities. Read about it here.

Tracking Our Vehicles

Then, there's the installation of GPS tracking devices in vehicles for auto insurance purposes. I have written extensively about this little privacy invasion in past posts, as there was legislation in California that sought to expand such an idea that the Consumer Federation of California, as well as the Consumer Watchdog, ACLU, Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, and the Electronic Frontier Foundation all opposed.

As Consumer Watchdog's Carmen Balber wrote: The possibility of installing technology in peoples' cars also brings up a host of privacy concerns: Should Californians be forced to pay higher premiums if they want to protect their privacy and reject technology?

(AB 2800)...would invite the spyware in. What kind of data do insurance companies really want to collect? They're already using a huge range of information - like speed, location and time of day - in different parts of the country and across the world.

You can read my posts about this former legislation here, here, and here.

Tracking Our Cell Phones

There's also the use of GPS tracking devices in cell phones. While serving as a U.S. attorney during the Bush administration, Christopher Christie tracked the whereabouts of citizens through their cell phones without warrants. The ACLU obtained the documents detailing the spying program from the Justice Department in an ongoing lawsuit over cell phone tracking.

While the documents reveal 79 such cases on or after Sept. 12, 2001, they do not specify how many of the applications were made during Christie's tenure. You can read more about that usage of this technology by going to my post here.

Law Enforcement and the New York Times Editorial

Now that we've got a broader understanding of what's at stake when discussing ways in which GPS tracking devices threaten privacy, let's go to the New York Timed Editorial today on the case involving the right of police to use this technology in suspects' cars:

A federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., heard arguments last week about whether police should have to get a warrant before putting a GPS device on a suspect’s car. It is a cutting-edge civil liberties question that has divided the courts that have considered it. GPS devices give the government extraordinary power to monitor people’s movements. The Washington court should rule that a warrant is required.


The Supreme Court has not considered the question of whether the police need a court order to install a GPS device. The government has tried to draw an analogy to a 1983 case in which the court ruled that the police do not need a warrant to use a radio beeper to track a vehicle on public roads, but the circumstances were different. In that case, the police were conducting visual surveillance of a particular suspect’s movements, and a beeper augmented the officers’ senses. A modern GPS device is a far more potent means of tracking people than a beeper.


The New York Court of Appeals, the highest New York court, got it exactly right earlier this year, insisting that permitting police to install GPS devices without judicial oversight would be “an enormous unsupervised intrusion by the police agencies of government upon personal privacy.” As technology advances, government will continue to acquire new and more efficient ways of monitoring people. It is critical that the privacy rights guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment keep up with those advances.

Click here to read more.


altonfereds said...

There was the story of the Bush Administration wanting to chip animals and have small farmers report nearly everything that happens to them.
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