Monday, January 23, 2012

One Per Cent - US Supreme Court rules GPS tracking requires a warrant

Paul Marks, senior technology correspondent
Stand down those GPS jammers, Americans. The justices of the US Supreme Court have ruled that the police will indeed continue to need a search warrant to install a GPS tracker on a suspect's car. The decision means police cannot treat GPS tracking as a simple extension of "tailing" someone, which does not require a warrant.
The justices had been asked to consider dropping the need for a search warrant by the US Department of Justice after a nightclub owner had a life jail term quashed by a lower court. The latter did so on the grounds that a location tracking device - which gathered data on the suspect's whereabouts crucial to his conviction - had been illegally acquired. Although a warrant had initially been issued for the tracking, it had expired - and the DoJ decided to fight the need for one, saying GPS beacons are latterday crime-fighting tools the law simply needs to catch up with.
The argument did not sit well with the justices - some described GPS tracking as Orwellian, worrying that even Supreme Court justices could be unknowingly tailed. "The government's attachment of the GPS device to the vehicle, and its use of that device to monitor the vehicle's movements, constituted a search under the Fourth Amendment," the justices ruled today. The Fourth Amendment protects US citizens' homes against unreasonable search and seizure by the state.
The American Civil Liberties Union said the ruling is "an important victory" for privacy.
"A majority of the Court acknowledged that advancing technology, like cell phone tracking, gives the government unprecedented ability to collect, store and analyse an enormous amount of information about our private lives," says ACLU legal director Steven Shapiro. "Today's decision suggests that the court is prepared to address that problem."
When the case was heard last November, Twitter was awash in chatter about illegal GPS jammers and how they could foil warrantless tracking. Hopefully that has now been stayed - as widespread jammer use could ruin GPS reception, not only for satnavs but also for cellphone networks which use the GPS satellite network's over-the-air atomic clock signals for timing purposes.
The privacy lobby's attention now swings to Congress, where the Geolocation Privacy and Surveillence Act (GPS Act) is pending discussion in both the Senate and the House. ACLU hopes the precedent set by the Supreme Court will similarly prevent cellphone-derived location data being seized by law enforcement without a warrant.

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