In a surprise move on Thursday, the federal government notified an appeals court that it reserves the right to secretly place GPS tracking devices on privately owned vehicles without first obtaining a warrant. Many wonder what the Department Of Justice is thinking since the long-anticipated ruling in January by the Supreme Court on just this issue. In January, the Supreme Court Justices ruled unanimously in the United States vs. Jones case that the practice of law enforcement placing a GPS tracking device on a vehicle without first obtaining a warrant was unconstitutional and a violation of the Fourth Amendment. In the Fourth Amendment it protects the "right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures."
According to a Department of Justice spokesperson, "A warrant is not needed for a GPS search, as the Supreme Court did not resolve that question." However, the Department expressed restraint when using these practices. The government made this argument to the 9th Circuit of Appeals, claiming that the Supreme Court intentionally left their language vague as a loophole in the law.
The media has been covering the argument of warrantless GPS tracking as well as other privacy related issues for quite some time. If the reader of this article believes that the government argument is based solely on physical GPS tracking devices used by law enforcement agencies, you would be wrong as the significance goes much deeper.
Tracking The Average Citizen
Whether you are aware of it or not, the ability to track your whereabouts is already in place. Even without GPS tracking technology, your cell phone can be tracked by cellular triangulation where cell towers can roughly pinpoint your location. However, most modern electronics, especially smart phones are equipped with a GPS receiver due to low cost modules and popular applications that help Americans locate services, navigate, etc. Cellular triangulation is inaccurate and unreliable whereas GPS pinpoints your location within a few feet.
Manufacturers of GPS tracking devices design portable and hard-wired devices as a tool that improves business productivity, provides peace of mind for parents of teen drivers and location of elderly parents, as well as the tools for law enforcement investigation. The question of the US government position should not be whether or not they are protecting the law enforcement agencies use of devices for investigative purposes. The real question lies whether they are setting the stage to separate the existing Supreme Court ruling as specific to law enforcement investigations. Therefore, monitoring mobile devices is not part of the existing law. The government will always have the ability to state that they are monitoring the device, not the individual. This is a slippery slope that most likely leads to the Supreme Court in the future.