Wednesday, November 9, 2011

GPS Tracking or What is Privacy?

The Supreme Court heard arguments yesterday regarding the privacy of citizens, specifically regarding the ability to track vehicle movements via GPS without a warrant.  First read about this in Wired in this article  Busted! Two New Fed GPS Trackers Found on SUV  which has a good sum-up of the case, with full details and pictures of the GPS trackers including manufacturer details and specs.  The biggest issue in this that should really disturb us as citizens is the basis from which the government is arguing for warrant-less placement of GPS devices on vehicles, namely "...  that citizens have no expectation of privacy when it comes to their movements in public so officers don’t need to get a warrant to use such devices." (Wired) 
     If you're not familiar with the case the NYT has a quick summation Court Casts a Wary Eye on Tracking by GPS . "The case concerned Antoine Jones, who was the owner of a Washington nightclub when the police came to suspect him of being part of a cocaine-selling operation. They placed a tracking device on his Jeep Grand Cherokee without a valid warrant, tracked his travels for a month and used the evidence they gathered to convict him of conspiring to sell cocaine. He was sentenced to life in prison." (NYT)
 NPR has a slew of articles on this, though none on the front page. High Court Troubled By Warrantless GPS Tracking   This is  one of the better articles as it has some excerpts from the hearing transcripts. What The governemnt's attorny, Dreeben, is pretty well prepared, articulate and seems to recognize that this is not simply about the case which brought this to the Supreme Court. The defense attorny, Leckar, seems to lacking a full understanding of the greater implications of this hearing. Driving home and listening to this last night caused me to wonder if a lawyer more cognizant of the wider impact of this decision could have been chosen. Especially one who doesn't admit to the Supreme Court that he thinks London's CCTV surveillance is "scary". In context Justice Kagan is discussing Lodon's surveillance and Leckar replies: "It's pretty scary. I wouldn't want to live in London under those circumstances." Justice SCALIA: "Well, it must be unconstitutional if it's scary."
Reading through the transcript, Leckar gets beat up pretty good while Dreeben is much more persuasive. While the Supreme Court is a substantially intimidating group of people, Leckar really needed to be on his game and this transcript makes me nervous that he does not do an adequate job in defending privacy. To Leckar's credit privacy has become a difficult term to define but this decision is going to set precedent for the future and to fail to address this meaningfully, I think, is going to dramatically change the way we live.

 The full transcript of the  is available here. Towards the beginning of the transcript Judge Scalia asks the question, which I think is key to this debate, "...are you obtaining information that a person had a reasonable expectation to be kept private?" This is at the heart of  the current privacy debate. Dreeben goes on to argue that GPS offer a less time-consuming method of collecting this data to which Judge Alita responds " the pre-computer, pre-Internet age much of the privacy -- I would say most of the privacy -- that people enjoyed was not the result of legal protections or constitutional protections; it was the result simply of the difficulty of traveling around and gathering up information." This difficulty of gathering people's information
The two other questions raised here, I think, are 1) what is privacy and 2) is that privacy a right of the citizens of this country.

 Supreme Court Hears Arguments In GPS Case
Do Police Need Warrants For GPS Tracking Devices?

GPS Tracking: Supreme Court Debates Privacy Limits On Police (Huffington Post)

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