January 12, 2005 11:00 AM PST

Snooping by satellite

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in Minnesota last year that embeds GPS devices in a customers' vehicles and offers insurance discounts based on where and when cars are driven.

Norwich Union, the United Kingdom's largest auto insurer, has experimented with a similar "pay as you drive" program involving 5,000 customers. Hertz has implanted GPS trackers in all of its rental cars, and trucking companies have used similar systems for years.

"If something's not totally secret, you don't have a reasonable expectation of privacy."
--Dan Solove, law professor,
George Washington University

GPS tracking systems are becoming cheap enough--the prices have dropped by about 50 percent in the last few years--that they've become attractive methods for tracing the whereabouts of teenagers and spouses. In 2003, South Carolina police thought they had discovered a bomb under a vehicle, but it turned out to be a GPS bug planted by a man's wife. In another case, a man in Colorado was convicted of tracking his wife with a GPS bug after she began divorce proceedings against him.

Solving crimes
GPS devices have been used to solve crimes from the petty to the heinous. Massachusetts police recently nabbed the driver of a snow removal truck who exposed himself at a Dunkin' Donuts, thanks to the Massachusetts Highway Department's requirement that state contractors outfit their trucks with GPS locators.

In 2000, when William Bradley Jackson called Spokane County, Wash., police to report that his daughter had vanished from the front yard that morning, detectives were immediately suspicious. Jackson seemed unusually nervous, and blood stains were discovered on his daughter's sheets.

Eight days later, after desperate searches failed to locate 9-year-old Valiree, detectives won court approval to secretly attach GPS tracking devices to Jackson's two vehicles.

The tactic worked; the GPS bugs led police to Valiree's shallow grave in a remote, dense forest about 50 miles from Spokane. The case ended in a murder conviction and 56-year prison sentence.

Complicating the privacy risks of tattletale cars is a pair of U.S. Supreme Court cases decided two decades ago. Those cases, U.S. v. Knotts and U.S. v. Karo, established that police don't need court approval to track suspects through a crude radio beeper.

In 1999, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals invoked that logic when deciding that federal agents did not need a court order to slap a GPS tracker on a truck owned by a man suspected of growing marijuana. "In placing the electronic devices on the undercarriage of the Toyota 4Runner, the officers did not pry into a hidden or enclosed area,"

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