Supreme Court to weigh in on warrantless GPS tracking

Is GPS tracking without a court warrant a violation of the Fourth Amendment?

In a move with far-reaching privacy implications, the U.S. Supreme Court has decided to hear a case involving the government's authority to conduct prolonged GPS tracking of suspects in criminal cases without first obtaining a court warrant.

The government has argued that it has the authority to conduct such searches ; privacy advocates have argued that such tracking violates Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure.

The Supreme Court's decision in the case will be pivotal because lesser courts around the U.S. have appeared split on the issue in recent years, with some upholding warrantless GPS tracking and others rejecting it.

The case the Supreme Court will hear involves Antoine Jones, a Washington, D.C. man who was convicted in 2008 on charges of possessing and conspiring to distribute more than 50 kilograms of cocaine.

Much of the government's evidence was obtained via the use of a GPS tracking device that had been secretly attached to Jones' Jeep by the FBI. The device, which was installed without a court warrant, tracked and recorded Jones' movements for a month.

Jones argued that the warrantless surveillance violated his Fourth Amendment rights and asked that the evidence gathered from the tracking be suppressed.

Privacy and civil rights groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) have filed friend-of-the-court briefs arguing that the level of surveillance enabled by modern GPS tracking devices is highly intrusive. They insist that law enforcement authorities need to obtain warrants based on probable cause before using GPS devices to track suspects.

Last August, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia circuit sided with Jones and rejected claims by the government that federal agents have the right to conduct around-the-clock warrantless GPS tracking of suspects.

The appellate court maintained that the evidence gathered in the case had been obtained in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

"It is one thing for a passerby to observe or even to follow someone during a single journey as he goes to the market or returns home from work," Judge Douglas Ginsburg wrote for the three-judge panel that reviewed the case. "It is another thing entirely for that stranger to pick up the scent again the next day and the day after that, week in and week out, dogging his prey until he has identified all the places, people, amusements, and chores that make up that person's hitherto private routine."

The government maintains that federal agents used the GPS device in accordance with precedent established in earlier cases involving warrantless GPS tracking.

The Supreme Court will decide whether the warrantless monitoring of Jones' movements violated his Fourth Amendment protections and whether the government needed a warrant before installing the device on Jones' Jeep.

In a statement, Catherine Crump, staff attorney for the ACLU's Speech, Privacy & Technology Project, welcomed the high court's decision to review the case. "The Court has the opportunity in this case to safeguard Fourth Amendment privacy protections in the face of technological advances," Crump said.

The use of GPS technology for police surveillance purposes raises significant privacy concerns, she said. GPS devices provide a window into the private lives of individuals and allow the government to monitor and record extremely personal information.

"Sensitive information about who we are and where we go should not be available to any police officer simply because he is curious about someone," Crump said "It must be subject to the judicial oversight that has always been a foundation of liberty in America."

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed . His e-mail address is jvijayan@computerworld.com.

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