Just Where Is GPS Tracking Taking Us?
This has been a good week to do just that. The Supreme Court heard arguments Tuesday over whether the government can attach a GPS tracker to your car without a warrant.
Credit for this development goes to the same miniaturization of GPS hardware that's made our phones smarter and more useful: pointing us to useful tips from friends via Foursquare; locating lost devices using apps like Apple's Find My Phone and nearby pals with the likes of Apple's Find My Friends; and providing non-wishful-thinking estimates of our arrival at a meeting using the free Glympse.
GPS tracking has become a consumer commodity in the form of items such as Garmin's GTU 10 (pictured above behind those app icons), which uses a wireless-data connection to beam up its location to its owner. The description on Garmin's site of this $199.99 device's utility, for example -- "Track your children on their way to school to make sure they arrive safely" -- is enough to make you wonder how any of us survived childhood without the option of satellite-linked monitoring.
But the law-enforcement community has taken notice of GPS tracking's possibilities as well. In Tuesday's Supreme Court case, United States v. Antoine Jones, the Metropolitan Police Department of Washington, D.C. left a GPS tracker on Jones's car for four weeks without renewing a warrant for that surveillance. The evidence it revealed led to Jones being convicted of drug trafficking before an appeals court threw out the verdict last September, sending the case to the Supreme Court.
The easy way for the court to dispatch this case would be to focus on the trespassing involved in sticking a GPS tracker on Jones's car; how is that not a Fourth Amendment issue? For an even starker look at this sort of conduct, read Kim Zetter's account on Wired.com of a San Jose, Calif., man who found one GPS device affixed to his vehicle, and then spotted a replacement after he removed the first one to show to Wired.
But I'd like to see the court look a little further ahead. If you already have security cameras on every street corner, would it be acceptable to use them to look for suspect cars by their license plates -- not just on one day, but for weeks at a stretch? What about remotely tracking people's phones? That's already a risk, one you can only eliminate by removing the phone's battery.
Here as in other areas, technology makes some unappealing prospects possible, and we should think carefully about them before signing up for the latest upgrade.
While we do that, two questions come to mind: Have you checked your car lately for any strange electronics? And if your city, county or state had an election Tuesday, did you remember to vote?