January 12, 2005 11:00 AM PST

Snooping by satellite

When Robert Moran drove back to his law offices in Rome, N.Y., after a plane trip to Arizona in July 2003, he had no idea that a silent stowaway was aboard his vehicle: a secret GPS bug implanted without a court order by state police.

Police suspected the lawyer of ties to a local Hells Angels Motorcycle Club that was selling methamphetamine, and they feared undercover officers would not be able to infiltrate the notoriously tight-knit group, which has hazing rituals that involve criminal activities. So investigators stuck a GPS, or Global Positioning System, bug on Moran's car, watched his movements, and arrested him on drug charges a month later.

A federal judge in New York ruled last week that police did not need court authorization when tracking Moran from afar. "Law enforcement personnel could have conducted a visual surveillance of the vehicle as it traveled on the public highways," U.S. District Judge David Hurd wrote. "Moran had no expectation of privacy in the whereabouts of his vehicle on a public roadway."

News.context

What's new:
Police agencies are making inroads in using GPS technology to track suspects--without getting court approval first.

Bottom line:
As more courts side with police over privacy, critics say GPS can reveal too much and should require strict judicial oversight.

More stories on this topic

Last week's court decision is the latest to grapple with the slippery subject of how to reconcile traditional notions of privacy and autonomy with increasingly powerful surveillance technology. Once relegated, because of their cost, to the realm of what spy agencies could afford, GPS tracking devices now are readily available to jealous spouses, private investigators and local police departments for just a few hundred dollars.

Not all uses are controversial. Trucking outfits use GPS boxes to keep track of their drivers' locations, and companies sell software to dispatchers that instantly calculates which taxi is closest to a customer. OnStar uses GPS tracking to provide roadside assistance to owners of many General Motors vehicles.

What's raising eyebrows, though, is the increasingly popular law enforcement practice of secretly tagging Americans' vehicles without adhering to the procedural safeguards and judicial oversight that protect the privacy of homes and telephone conversations from police abuses.

"I think they should get court orders," said Lee Tien, staff counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "We're in a world where more and more of our activities can be viewed in public and, perhaps more importantly, be correlated and linked together."

"We're in a world where more and more of our activities can be viewed in public and...be correlated and linked together."
--Lee Tien, staff counsel, EFF

GPS devices work by listening for radio signals from satellites and calculating how long the signals take to arrive.

The result of that calculation provides a highly accurate estimation of latitude and longitude. Depending on the type of GPS tracker, that information is beamed back to an eavesdropper's computer through the cellular network or quietly recorded and divulged when the device is retrieved a few days or weeks later.

Voluntarily agreeing to automotive GPS tracking can be a bargain for some consumers. Progressive Casualty Insurance began a pilot project

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