2012
01.31

High Court Doesn’t Change GPS

Last week’s ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court has some people concerned about the future of GPS tracking devices. In short, GPS (global positioning system) devices are very important and serve a critical role in the marketplace. The recent court decision does not change how effective and viable these devices are for keeping tabs on children, pets, elderly, sex offenders, fleets, and so much more. The ruling in general is a little tricky. But from what I am gathering, the Supreme Court justices made it clear that law enforcement can’t just surreptitiously place a tracking device on a suspect’s car. Now here’s the tricky part that I think some people might be having a little trouble interpreting the ruling. The question is whether a warrant or court order is required. Some reporters are interpreting the ruling as a warrant or court order is required.

The answer is yes and no. But let me explain. When the early announcement of the ruling came out, the general media really did focus on the warrant side of the issue, shedding a pretty dark light on the future of GPS devices in general. And this is really what I want to focus on.

Many of the tech companies called me and asked me to write a blog to shed a little more light on the high-court ruling. At the onset, let me be clear, I am not a lawyer. I am a journalist who has been covering the tech space for more years than I would like to admit. And with that said I should be able to lend some insight into the tech side of the discussion. As for the overall legal discussion, I am sure there are much smarter people than I who would like to chime into the debate, and I encourage them to do so. It’s also important to note that anytime we are discussing Supreme Court rulings nothing is as cut and dry as we all would like it be.

Before we discuss the ruling, we need to step back and understand how this all came about. The ruling came after federal officials overstepped their bounds in 2005 when they—without a court order—attached a tracking device to Antoine Jones’s Jeep (United States v. Jones). More importantly, the justices were concerned that the installation of a GPS device on a suspect’s vehicle and then the tracking of him around the clock to record the public places the car traveled is a violation of Fourth Amendment rights of search and seizures.

Candidly, what makes this an important case is the discussion about privacy, technology, and the scope of the Fourth Amendment. It’s really not a discussion about the effectiveness of GPS technology in general. Unfortunately, that is the path that some have taken the discussion.

This case questions the police and their authority to use GPS devices to track bad people day and night, 24/7 anywhere they go with and without a court order. Does this impinge on your right to be free of unreasonable searches? The real kicker here is what if you are not a bad guy, but the police think you are? Should they be allowed to track you if they suspect you are doing something wrong? What if they just want to track you on a hunch? Now we are getting to the really stickiness of the ruling.

But even more troublesome it seems the Supreme Court justices appear to have reservations about using GPS tracking as a law enforcement tool in general. With all due respect, what this indicates to me is that they still don’t understand the technology and what it ultimately means to society. Every technology can be used inappropriately, let’s be honest about that. However, what we should be considering is whether the greater good outweighs the negative?

Because of the amazing nature of this high-tech solution, it won’t be long before the Supreme Court will be grappling with similar concerns about law enforcement and other issues associated with tracking. More and more cases of this nature will appear before the U.S. Supreme Court and it will set the stage for how we all embrace these solutions and many others that will emerge. The U.S. Supreme Court did not say GPS was wrong, but rather it has more concerns about how law enforcement can use this technology when tracking individuals.

Simply, installing a GPS device is a search that may or may not require a warrant, and it strongly hints, and even suggests, that long-term monitoring of such a device will require a warrant. In addition, the Supreme Court does not hold that the installation of such a device requires a warrant. What’s more, it’s anyone’s guess as to whether the GPS device can be monitored for more than a couple of days. Again therein lies the legal rub in understanding the court’s decision.

As I said, I am not an attorney, but I do love technology and we live and breathe it every day here at Connected World. I can only hope all the Supreme Court justices understand the true value these advances will have on our lives, both positively and negatively. GPS devices have the ability to do so much good if applied appropriately. Let’s hope that we do not lose sight of the greater purpose these devices can serve.

During the next decade or so we can expect judges and legislators will grapple with all the new connected gadgets that are quickly emerging on the marketplace, in an effort to apply some form of jurisprudence to the technology. All of these issues will cause significant challenges and some significant migraines for American law and the combined emerging technology marketplace. So this ruling is just the beginning of so much more to come.

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