Small and easily hidden, GPS tracking devices allow the police to watch the movements of individuals with precision and stealth. In some investigations, police have secretly attached a GPS tracker to a suspect’s car for days or weeks at a time. The resulting data allows police to build a detailed picture of an individual’s life – where you live, work, shop, and eat, when you leave in the morning and return home at night. It shows the government which organizations you belong to, and who you spend your time with. Many departments also use GPS trackers, embedded in ankle bracelets, to enforce house arrest and parole orders. Additionally, some police departments have begun using GPS to track their own officers’ movements.
CIVIL LIBERTIES CONCERNS
In the past, cost limited the ability of the police to follow people; assigning officers to tail a suspect at all times is a serious investment of time and resources. But the ease and low cost of attaching a GPS receiver to a person’s car changes matters. The GPS receivers police departments use can easily track your car for days or weeks. While the government has argued that this type of location tracking is no different from the old-fashioned tailing of suspects by detectives, in fact it is much more intrusive – like having a police officer in your back seat 24/7. Indeed, the U.S. Supreme Court has found that prolonged GPS tracking constitutes a search under the Fourth Amendment. The Third Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that investigators need a warrant for long-term GPS tracking. In 2003, the Washington State Supreme Court found that the state constitution requires police to get a warrant before attaching a GPS tracker to a suspect’s car.
The U.S. military developed the Global Positioning System (GPS) in the 1970s to aid in navigation. Later, it opened the system for use by the global public.
- GPS is a network of dozens of satellites in low orbit. It forms a pattern that ensures that four satellites are always “visible” to every point on earth.
- GPS receivers intercept the signals emitted by these satellites. These signals contain information about the satellite’s position in the sky. By combining data from three or more satellites, the receiver can calculate its own location, a process called ‘trilateration.’
- The GPS receivers used by police departments transmit their location data back to investigators. Investigators can monitor the movements of a suspect vehicle in real-time, or save the vehicle’s movement history for review later. By overlaying the location data and time stamps on a map, the police discover the places the vehicle has visited, the routes its driver took, even the speed at which he was driving.
Law enforcement agencies have eagerly embraced GPS tracking. Investing in these devices has enabled investigators to save enormous amounts of staff time and resources. The FBI alone owns over 3,000 of them.
Examples of Use
- Location::OregonDEA Tracks Suspect’s Vehicle For Four Months – Without A Warrant
On May 28, 2007, an off-duty DEA agent shopping at an Oregon Home Depot happened to notice Juan Pineda-Moreno buy a large amount of fertilizer commonly used in marijuana grows. He observed Pineda-Moreno and his friends leave in a 1997 Jeep Cherokee, and asked store employees to call if they returned to buy more supplies. When employees did call, the DEA launched a full-scale investigation of Pineda-Moreno’s mysterious purchase of gardening equipment. Agents secretly installed several GPS trackers on his car while it was parked in front of his home, in his driveway, and in a parking lot, without ever bothering to get the approval of a judge. For four months, the DEA amassed detailed information about his movements and activities. When agents finally saw him leaving a suspected grow site, they quickly arrested him. The Ninth Circuit denied Pineda-Moreno’s claim that the DEA’s tracking violated the Fourth Amendment. Fortunately, though, the Supreme Court unanimously invalidated that ruling in United States v. Antoine Jones in 2012.
When government agencies consider acquiring and using surveillance systems, communities and their elected officials must both weigh the benefits against the costs to civil liberties and carefully craft policies and procedures that help to limit the negative effects that surveillance will have on fundamental rights. For a useful list of considerations, please visit the recommendations page.