The Right to be Alone

In November, the Supreme Court is set to hear a case that could have wide ramifications in how authorities can use GPS monitoring. It’s been called the most important Fourth Amendment case in a decade, and it has to do with whether police can affix a GPS tracking device to a suspect’s vehicle without a warrant.

In United States v. Jones, No. 10-1259, the question posed to the court is: Does the warrantless use of a tracking device on a respondent’s vehicle to monitor its movements on public streets violate the Fourth Amendment? The Fourth Amendment deals with our right to privacy, including a provision against “against unreasonable searches and seizures.” In essence, the court will have to decide if using a GPS tracker to monitor a suspect’s every move –without a warrant—constitutes an unreasonable invasion of the person’s privacy.

A recent New York Times article talking about GPS monitoring by law enforcement recounts how many judges have been referring to George Orwell’s novel “1984” when talking about the practice. This caught my eye because I am currently reading “1984” for the first time. As a former English major, I’m not sure how I escaped this classic for so long, but I recently picked it up to see what all the fuss is about.

In the book, citizens are never safe from the watching eyes of “Big Brother” in the form of hidden microphones, cameras, and spies who could be lurking around every corner. Just the fact that you could be watched at any time leads people to live in a state of constant paranoia. If police don’t need a warrant to attach a GPS monitoring device to a person’s car, I worry our communities may begin to feel a bit like the dystopia Orwell imagined.

Of course people will counter with the argument that if you aren’t doing anything wrong you have nothing to worry about. I’m not sure that’s the point, but I also don’t know that it’s true. Being tracked to questionable locations isn’t the same as being guilty of a specific crime, but it may not seem that way to a jury. But the bigger issue is whether we want to be the kind of society that tracks a person’s every move without a warrant. In today’s world of shrinking space where we can be sure we’re not monitored, a little extra safeguard for privacy doesn’t seem like a bad thing.

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