A very chilling precedent from an upstate New York federal judge who ruled that police can secretly attach Global Positioning System devices to a suspect’s vehicle without a warrant, stating that suspects had “no expectation of privacy in the whereabouts of his vehicle on a public roadway”:
“Law enforcement personnel could have conducted a visual surveillance of the vehicle as it traveled on the public highways,” [Judge] Hurd wrote.
Assistant U.S. Attorney David Grable, who is prosecuting Moran, strongly backed the ruling.
“Your movements on a highway aren’t private,” he said. “You don’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy, which is a Fourth Amendment test.”
I couldn’t disagree more.
Yes, my vehicle could be visually observed by law enforcement on the public highways. But there exist certain “norms” of the type of information and the flow of that information that is available to law enforcement without a warrant. To visually track my car, they need to be able to keep it in sight 24/7, through all types of traffic, all types of weather, all various jurisdictions and any other obstacle that could get in the way of visually tracking a car. The use of GPS eliminates any such “natural barriers” to visually observing or tracking my car. It is a substantive change.
Further, the type of information available via GPS is substantively different than through visual observation. The digital nature of the information provided by GPS expands the ability to process, store and distribute vast amounts of personal information about individual vehicles. Further, the processing of digital information can be done electronically, alleviating the need for a human to physically record & analyze the data, increasing exponentially the size and complexity of data analyses available. Additionally, the digital nature of vehicle data enabled by GPS technology expands the ability and reduces the cost for distributing information to third parties, potentially including insurance companies, marketers, or other government agencies.
This issue speaks directly to my research in the privacy implications of another technology that enables systematic tracking: Vehicle Safety Communications enabled by dedicated-short-range-communication (DSRC) technology. (Edit: published paper here)
It also speaks directly to this concern about governments mandating the installation of GPS in automobiles. If all cars have GPS, and the police don’t need warrants to track GPS data, there will no longer be any anonymity on the roads.