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Court Rejects Warrantless GPS Tracking
Washington, D.C. - The U.S. 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.
In United States v. Maynard, FBI agents planted a GPS device on a car while it was on private property and then used it to track the position of the automobile every ten seconds for a full month, all without securing a search warrant. In an amicus brief filed in the case, EFF and the ACLU of the Nation's Capital argued that unsupervised use of such tactics would open the door for police to abuse their power and continuously track anyone's physical location for any reason, without ever having to go to a judge to prove the surveillance is justified.
The court agreed that such round-the-clock surveillance required a search warrant based on probable cause. The court expressly rejected the government's argument that such extended, 24-hours-per-day surveillance without warrants was constitutional based on previous rulings about limited, point-to-point surveillance of public activities using radio-based tracking beepers. Recognizing that the Supreme Court had never considered location tracking of such length and scope, the court noted: "When it comes to privacy...the whole may be more revealing than its parts."
The court continued: "It is one thing for a passerby to observe or even to follow someone during a single journey as he goes to the market or returns home from work. It is another thing entirely for that stranger to pick up the scent again the next day and the day after that, week in and week out, dogging his prey until he has identified all the places, people, amusements, and chores that make up that person's hitherto private routine."
"The court correctly recognized the important differences between limited surveillance of public activities possible through visual surveillance or traditional 'bumper beepers,' and the sort of extended, invasive, pervasive, always-on tracking that GPS devices allow," said EFF Civil Liberties Director Jennifer Granick. "This same logic applies in cases of cell phone tracking, and we hope that this decision will be followed by courts that are currently grappling with the question of whether the government must obtain a warrant before using your cell phone as a tracking device."
"GPS tracking enables the police to know when you visit your doctor, your lawyer, your church, or your lover," said Arthur Spitzer, Legal Director of the ACLU-NCA. "And if many people are tracked, GPS data will show when and where they cross paths. Judicial supervision of this powerful technology is essential if we are to preserve individual liberty. Today's decision helps brings the Fourth Amendment into the 21st Century."
Attorneys Daniel Prywes and Kip Wainscott of Bryan Cave LLP also volunteered their services to assist in preparing the EFF-ACLU brief.
For the full opinion:
For more information on the case, formerly known as U.S. v. Jones:
Senior Staff Attorney
Electronic Frontier Foundation
Electronic Frontier Foundation