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Privacy The Courts Government Transportation

Court Rejects Warrantless GPS Tracking 226

The EFF is trumpeting a victory in a case in which it and the ACLU filed an amicus brief. "The US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit today firmly rejected government claims that federal agents have an unfettered right to install Global Positioning System (GPS) location-tracking devices on anyone's car without a search warrant. ... The court agreed that such round-the-clock surveillance required a search warrant based on probable cause. ...the court noted: 'When it comes to privacy... the whole may be more revealing than its parts.'"
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Court Rejects Warrantless GPS Tracking

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  • I'm still curious (Score:4, Interesting)

    by FooAtWFU ( 699187 ) on Friday August 06, 2010 @03:49PM (#33167116) Homepage

    What happens if you find such a device on your car? Sure, you can call the police because there's a suspicious item on your car (which may be dangerous!! what if it exploded?) but do you think they would say something like "oh no, that's ours!" -- or could they tell you to leave it there?

    What happens when you run a packet dump and notice a government spyware program? whee! ...

    • by casings ( 257363 ) on Friday August 06, 2010 @03:55PM (#33167208)

      If it wasn't secured to your car with duct tape, you can probably be pretty sure it wasn't done by the police.

    • Re:I'm still curious (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Monkeedude1212 ( 1560403 ) on Friday August 06, 2010 @03:56PM (#33167218) Journal

      Look, I know that IT professionals get stereotyped as the guys who ruin peoples lives by either making their work a living hell with Windows Updates breaking every application - or by exposing some personal emails that shouldn't have been sent on your work outlook account, or even by neglecting to upgrade you off of that old Windows NT box.

      But really, how bad does it have to get before you start suspecting that someone might have planted an explosive on your car?

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      Most drivers I know in Chicago willfully place such devices in their windshields for paying tolls. I know they aren't GPS yet, but probably future versions will be and people will use them and sign away on whatever forms in the name of connivence.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        >>>I know they aren't GPS yet, but probably future versions will be

        How do you know that? The current gadgets are actually quite dumb, because it keeps them cheap to handout for free. Converting them to a GPS device would be about 20 times more costly, as well as requiring an external power plug, so I think your prognostication is wrong.

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by ericfitz ( 59316 )

          RFID toll tokens have already been successfully used to prove location and travel:
          http://blogs.msdn.com/b/ericfitz/archive/2007/08/10/ez-pass-logs-used-in-divorce-cases.aspx [msdn.com]

          • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

            Which has nothing to do with GPS. GPS can pinpoint your specific location and make it easy to police to come get you. In contrast EZpass only shows a few points spread-out over dozens or even hundreds of miles. i.e. Only when you enter and exit the tollroad. AND it's typically old data that would be of no use for police to locate you.

        • Ever driven in Chicago? How much does it cost for the city/county/state to install and upkeep all those scanning stations on the roads. How much would it cost in the future when most cars sold today already have GPS standard and ability to access the cell network? What do you think OnStar is?

      • In the Chicago area, with the number of toll booths on the road, those devices might as well be GPS, as your passes through those booths are tracked with a time stamp, so anyone with access knows where you were and when. I've heard (but not validated) that you can actually get a speeding ticket mailed to you if you go from checkpoint A to checkpoint B faster than the speed limit, assuming there's no traffic at the far end to slow you down enough.
    • Re:I'm still curious (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward on Friday August 06, 2010 @04:18PM (#33167576)
      I used to installed GPS tracking devices for the Feds - so I can help you out. These devices are very rarely deployed - fairly expensive and time consuming, even w/o the warrant, which most Agencies have required as a matter of policy anyway for the last ten years. Yeah, sometimes the Feds anticipate rulings like this and do more than required so they won't lose evidence on appeal. Get over it. If you find one on your vehicle - you've earned it - and you won't be scratching your head as to why. Either you've been REAL busy doing some fairly bad stuff or your car is routinely used by others to do so. Knowing who was in the tracked vehicle (if the GPS records are simply being logged and downloaded) is a problem - so you're probably under physical surveillance too and the box is just to reel you back in if you get beyond visual range. Yeah, you can take it off, throw it away, turn it in at the local cop shop - you can even put it someone else' car. Won't matter - you'll soon be in line for an upgrade - that you WON'T find. And as for detecting .gov spyware with your packet sniffer. Good luck with that.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by PPH ( 736903 )

      What happens if you find such a device on your car?

      You leave it there for a while. So they get used to the fact that they can trace your movements. When they are comfortable with tracking you, you remove it and stick it on a cop car. Then you call a friend and tell him that the deal will go down 'at the usual place this afternoon'.

      So the ATF, DEA or whomever mounts an assault on Li'l Johns Bar and Grill, where most of the local cops hang out all day.

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by toastar ( 573882 )

      What happens if you find such a device on your car? Sure, you can call the police because there's a suspicious item on your car (which may be dangerous!! what if it exploded?) but do you think they would say something like "oh no, that's ours!" -- or could they tell you to leave it there?

      What happens when you run a packet dump and notice a government spyware program? whee! ...

      I wouldn't report it, I'd attach it to the nearest taxi.

    • Re:I'm still curious (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Caerdwyn ( 829058 ) on Friday August 06, 2010 @04:21PM (#33167618) Journal

      A long while ago (about 1996) I noticed unusual traffic coming in to my hobbyist server. Things that nowadays are just part of the background noise: port scans, SYNs to nonexistant hosts (I had a /28 block on a fractional T1. NerdPeen ACTIVATE!), that sort of thing. The source IP address in question then crawled my website and connected to my SMTP server and sent mail to itself (wisdom such as "don't be an open relay" was not widespread at the time... my diagnosic skills were better than my security skills at the time).

      A few nslookups and whois later, and a traceroute or two, and I was at Langley. Huh. Was someone there doing something? Or was it spoofed in some way? It's not like I had ever done anything interesting in my life other than flip a significantly-non-stock VW Rabbit onto its roof and host a website for friends to post their dirty pictures. Hmmm, maybe that was it. 007 wanted pr0n!

      A few emails and one phone call later and I was talking to an instructor at Langley who was teaching basic network forensics. He said they were choosing random domains then learning what they could about them and presenting that knowledge as a classroom exercise, and apologized if their was any disruption; he said it was only an attempt to do basic recon of non-NATted networks, not penetration (insert joke here). My response was something to the effect of "OK, no problem, I understand. But... I noticed . I shouldn't have. And I'm a total amateur at this. If your students are going to be able to do their jobs, they need to be less obvious about it."

      If you find a BatBug on your car, the cops need to know of their incompetence. Then send it to Gizmodo!

    • by selven ( 1556643 )

      I'm pretty sure it's legally yours to do whatever you want with it. I suggest you attach it to a pigeon.

    • by dgatwood ( 11270 )

      What happens if you find such a device on your car?

      I don't know about you, but I'd probably pull it off and attach it to the nearest semi going across the country. Or maybe a squirrel.

      And then install a jammer just in case they try it again with a bug that's harder to spot. Maybe even generate a fake GPS stream showing that the vehicle was at 30,000 feet, traveling at Mach 7, over the northern coast of Ecuador.

  • aw (Score:2, Insightful)

    I was hoping i could play spot the gps tracker with my friends, or also my other favorite, Who wants to faraday the bottom of their car!?
    • by nizo ( 81281 ) *

      Someone needs to plunk a few of these GPS units onto several elected offical's cars and post the results. Hilarity is sure to ensue.

  • Nice one (Score:3, Interesting)

    by JackSpratts ( 660957 ) on Friday August 06, 2010 @03:52PM (#33167166) Homepage
    Go EFF!
  • So far so good. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Local ID10T ( 790134 ) <ID10T.L.USER@gmail.com> on Friday August 06, 2010 @03:55PM (#33167206) Homepage

    Lets see how this goes on appeal.

    This is the kind of issue that winds up before the supreme court. It is simple, and obvious, but somebody is going to argue it to their last breath.

    • Re: (Score:2, Redundant)

      by dnaumov ( 453672 )

      But, but, but, but... "National Security!!!"

      • Re: (Score:2, Redundant)

        And "The Children!"

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by blair1q ( 305137 )

        If it really is a national security issue, all bets are off.

        But it probably isn't. It's the Bush administration's legal stink-bombs gumming up the future, just as they were planned to do.

        We waste our time and money and attention trying to remove the rotting fish from the walls, while he and his buddies are laundering the money they looted from our safe.

    • Re:So far so good. (Score:4, Interesting)

      by dgatwood ( 11270 ) on Friday August 06, 2010 @04:31PM (#33167798) Homepage Journal

      Lets see how this goes on appeal.

      You know, when I read the headline, I expected ninth circuit. I mean, I'd be shocked if this decision had come out of the 4th or 5th, but even the D.C. circuit coming to that conclusion is a bit surprising, IMHO. It's not exactly a bastion of liberalism or civil liberties.

      What's particularly baffling is that the ninth actually went the other way. So it's almost certainly a sufficiently contentious issue to get certiorari. I'll be interested to see the appeal, too. It seems clear that warrantless GPS tracking could be easily abused, and that the relatively low cost and effort involved makes it a fairly significant escalation of police surveillance. On the flip side, one could legitimately argue that anything you do in a vehicle is done in a public place and that you have no expectation of privacy. So it's definitely not clear cut either way.

      I would tend to err on the side of requiring a warrant, particularly given that it is a relatively low bar and given that there is minimal chance of the decision to plant a GPS device being so time critical that a warrant could not be reasonably obtained. And if we see warrantless GPS tracking used in a sufficiently widespread way, there is substantial risk that people will employ countermeasures to jam GPS signals in and around their vehicles. The resulting mess would endanger public safety. So it is important that GPS tracking be very limited. Requiring a warrant does this. Without requiring a warrant, the temptation is too great to use GPS as a crutch in place of proper surveillance, which in the long run would be seriously detrimental to society.

    • I highly doubt the Supreme Court will hear the case.

      To the best of my knowledge, there are not a plethora of conflicting lower court rulings on the issue. And while there is a constitutional question to be answered, I don't see it as wildly different than other cases they have decided such that it needs a separate ruling. These are the major criteria that the justices use to determine whether or not to hear the case.

      Just because you are technically able to appeal up to them does not mean they will gra

  • "government claims" (Score:3, Interesting)

    by artg ( 24127 ) on Friday August 06, 2010 @03:57PM (#33167236)
    So who, exactly, wanted to assert this right ? Names, please, not agencies.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      Eventually it will be *DOT (with the * being your state). Got to come up with some way of taxing electric car users to use the road if they aren't paying for it in fuel taxes.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Aboroth ( 1841308 )
      It was just "The Government". You know, that undefined blob of mental mass that you can blame everything on and assign as the cause and/or solution to all of yours and the world's problems.
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        You know, that undefined blob of mental mass that you can blame everything on and assign as the cause and/or solution to all of yours and the world's problems.

        You are just lining yourself up for a "Your Mom" joke, by the way.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday August 06, 2010 @04:09PM (#33167424)
    IANAL, but I keep an eye on this stuff. In many jurisdictions you can't get a search warrant in order to put a GPS on a car, because a search warrant typically requires "probable cause" to think that a specific, specified crime has been committed, and that evidence of that crime is probable to be found in a search. The warrant then specifically must list what the police are searching for, and where they are allowed to search. There are few cases where the GPS is likely to turn up proof of a specific crime.

    The problem with GPS tracking is that it's typically used more for intellegence/surveilance type stuff. You do this before you get a warrant, in order to get enough probable cause to do a search.

    In many jurisdictions police use GPS at their own discrection because they see it as equivalent to tailing, but also because they can't get a warrant. Most police are actually pretty good about getting warrants before doing stuff when they can; there's no reason not to, and it makes a case stronger.
    • by Nadaka ( 224565 )

      GPS tracking is more akin to wiretapping or planting bugs. It also requires probable cause and a warrant.

  • I wonder if it is illegal for a private citizen to plant a GPS tracker on my car. If so, are there specific laws prohibiting tracking devices, or does it fall under some broader statute like trespassing or vandalism or the like.

Don't tell me how hard you work. Tell me how much you get done. -- James J. Ling