The Supreme Court is set to hear historic arguments Tuesday in what perhaps is the most important Fourth Amendment case in a decade — one weighing the collision of privacy, technology and the Constitution.
The question before the justices asks: May the police secretly install a Global Positioning System device on a vehicle without a probable cause warrant issued by a judge in order to track a suspect’s every move?
The last time the justices were confronted with the blending of technology and privacy was a decade ago before the mass proliferation of GPS gadgets. The high court at the time ruled in favor of constitutional protections when it concluded that thermal-imaging devices used to detect marijuana-growing operations inside a house amounted to a search and therefore required a court warrant. Contrast this to a prior ruling in 1983 when the justices said it was okay for the government to use beepers known as “bird dogs” to track a suspect’s vehicle without a warrant.
Technology has advanced since both of these cases, feeding the government’s growing hunger for cost-efficient, easy-to-use spy tools, and making the latest debate before the justices seem Orwellian. Today, one’s exact position on Earth can easily be secretly monitored with devices costing less than $200. Add to this the government’s argument in court briefs that “a person has no reasonable expectation of privacy in his movements from one place to another,” and you have the makings for widespread, unchecked surveillance.
Behind the scenes of the hotly contested GPS case, which is garnering press attention far and wide, is a fledgling enterprise capitalizing on the appetite for tools to track people by both police and private citizens.
The Justice Department has said that law enforcement agents employ GPS as a crime-fighting tool with “great frequency.”