Justices Still Undecided on Cell Phone GPS Tracking
While it may seem farfetched to some that the federal government occasionally takes a few liberties with surveillance laws, it’s simply not that way anymore. “Big Brother is watching you.” If you haven’t read up on your literary history lately, that quote is from George Orwell’s classic novel, 1984, which describes a dystopian future in which the government constantly monitors the activities of all civilians. To some people, both then and now, the idea seems to border paranoia. But as the FBI was recently slighted for placing GPs trackers on people’s cars without proper warranting, is the idea really so absurd?
There are currently laws in circulation which prevent this, such as the 4th Amendment, which was recently expanded to disallow the unwarranted use of a GPS tracker on a person’s car.
But what about your cell phone? If your cell phone is turned on, it automatically registers its location with cell towers every few minutes. Many phone providers keep track of your location already using this GPS system, which makes it all the more easier for someone else to monitor At present, police can access this network to track you without a warrant.
Are you worried yet? Where have you been lately? Go to your local police station and they may be able to answer that question for you.
A few weeks ago, the United States Supreme Court ruled that using a GPS tracking device without a warrant to track someone was against the law under the Fourth Amendment (United States vs. Antoine Jones). Police arrested Jones on a drug trafficking charge in 2008, but a lower court overturned their ruling because Jones was arrested using evidence obtained through an unwarranted GPS tracker. The Supreme Court maintained this decision, and reaffirmed that a warrant is necessary in order for police to use a GPS tracker.
The Supreme Court justices, however, were divided in their reasons for their ruling. They explained their reasoning by releasing statements on the matter, detailing why made their decisions and how they came to their own respective conclusions.
According to the majority opinion written by Justice Antonin Scalia, police violated Antoine Jones’ Fourth Amendment right against illegal search and seizure by placing the GPS device on his car without a warrant.
“The Government physically occupied private property for the purpose of obtaining information,” Scalia said. “We have no doubt that such a physical intrusion would have been considered a ‘search’ within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.”
It’s one thing for the Supreme Court Justices to rule the physical trespass as an unwarranted search, but what about the matter of tracking GPS enabled smart phones? There is no physical intrusion onto the phone itself, but there is still an intrusion on to someone’s personal space, with plenty of access to a person’s information. What about that?
“It may be that achieving the same result through electronic means, without an accompanying trespass, is an unconstitutional invasion of privacy,” Scalia said. “But the present case does not require us to answer that question.”
However, this question needs to be answered. Should we wait for another case to come before the Supreme Court to let them decide our electronic privacy rights?