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Warrantless GPS Tracking Case Heads to Supreme Court

Catherine Crump,
Staff Attorney,
ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project
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June 27, 2011

Today the Supreme Court announced it will consider whether the government may plant GPS devices on vehicles to track people without judicial supervision. In the case, United States v. Jones, the FBI and Washington, D.C., police attached a GPS device to Antoine Jones’s car and tracked his movements continuously for a month. This case provides an excellent opportunity for the Court to recognize that 24-7 GPS tracking is so intrusive that it should be prohibited under the Bill of Rights except when authorized by a court based on probable cause to believe that criminal activity is afoot.

The Court has the opportunity in this case to safeguard Fourth Amendment privacy protections in the face of technological advances. Police surveillance using GPS technology raises significant privacy concerns. GPS devices allow the government to monitor and record extremely detailed information about our personal lives. GPS can reveal sensitive information that people reasonably want to keep private, from where they go to the doctor to which friends they are seeing. Sensitive information about who we are and where we go should not be available to any police officer simply because he is curious about someone. It must be subject to the judicial oversight that has always been a foundation of liberty in America.

As the D.C. Circuit observed when ruling that the government needed a warrant in Jones:

A person who knows all of another’s travels can deduce whether he is a weekly churchgoer, a heavy drinker, a regular at the gym, an unfaithful husband, an outpatient receiving medical treatment, an associate of particular individuals or political groups — and not just one such fact about a person, but all such facts.

The Court’s decision in Jones could have a significant impact on everyone’s privacy because most of us are carrying a tracking device everyday: our cell phone.

Even basic cell phones can be tracked whenever they are turned on — and over 96 percent of Americans now carry a cell phone. The ACLU is working hard to safeguard sensitive location information, from filing a friend-of-the-court brief in this and other GPS cases, to supporting new federal laws to upgrade privacy protections.

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