January 12, 2005 11:00 AM PST
Snooping by satellite
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the court ruled, saying the bug did not violate the Fourth Amendment's prohibition against unreasonable searches and seizures.
A handful of courts have veered in the other direction, saying GPS technology is so powerful and can reveal so much about a person's life that it requires strict judicial oversight.
The "use of GPS tracking devices is a particularly intrusive method of surveillance, making it possible to acquire an enormous amount of personal information about the citizen under circumstances where the individual is unaware that every single vehicle trip taken and the duration of every single stop may be recorded by the government," the Washington Supreme Court said in the Jackson murder case in September 2003. "Citizens of this state have a right to be free from the type of governmental intrusion that occurs when a GPS device is attached to a citizen's vehicle...A warrant is required for installation of these devices."
Big boss is watching
Wireless companies are
rolling out new GPS
services designed to
track mobile workers.
Some legal scholars fear that when the U.S. Supreme Court eventually weighs in on GPS tracking, it will side with police over privacy. "Unless it changes its view, it's unlikely that the court will think the same way as the Washington Supreme Court," said Dan Solove, a law professor at George Washington University. "The court has a very narrow and crabbed understanding of privacy. If something's not totally secret, you don't have a reasonable expectation of privacy."
GPS tracking--even when bugs are installed by police armed with a court order--can be imperfect. One bug used by police to track convicted murderer Scott Peterson sometimes developed glitches that showed him driving at about 30,000 miles per hour. Judge Alfred Delucchi ruled the data could be admitted during Peterson's trial, which appears to have been the first such decision in California.
Even with the occasional glitches, police see great potential in GPS tracking systems, like OnStar, that are built into more expensive cars--and that most people believe will be activated only in emergencies. In one North Carolina case, police used the built-in OnStar system in a 2000 Chevrolet Suburban truck to locate it and arrest the driver, who had bought it with a fake certified check.
An even more creative method of vehicle tracking arose when the FBI used such a system for audio eavesdropping. OnStar and other remote assistance products permit passengers to call an operator for help in an emergency. The FBI realized the feature could be useful for bugging a vehicle and remotely activated it to eavesdrop on what passengers were saying. (The 9th Circuit shot down that scheme in 2003, on the grounds that it rendered the system useless in emergencies.)
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