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Unanimous Supreme Court Ensures Americans Have Protections from GPS Surveillance

January 23, 2012

Unanimous Supreme Court Ensures Americans Have Protections from GPS Surveillance

EFF Amicus Brief Argued that Government Installation and Use of GPS is a Search

San Francisco - In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court has confirmed that Americans have constitutional protections against GPS surveillance by law enforcement, holding in U.S. v. Jones that GPS tracking is a "search" under the Fourth Amendment.

In Jones, FBI agents planted a GPS device on a car and then tracked the position of the vehicle every ten seconds for a full month without court oversight. In its ruling today, the Supreme Court held that those actions violated the Fourth Amendment. The majority opinion did not address whether tracking that did not require the physical attachment of a device to property also constitutes a search. However, the concurring opinions of Justices Alito and Sotomayor show a majority of the judges agreed that such surveillance could violate the Fourth Amendment.

"This is a important ruling for all Americans," said Senior Staff Attorney Marcia Hofmann of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). "The Supreme Court has unanimously confirmed that the Constitution prevents unbridled police use of new technologies to monitor our movements."

EFF and the Center for Democracy and Technology filed an amicus brief in the case, arguing that GPS tracking is fundamentally different from and more invasive than other surveillance technologies the court has allowed before, and that law enforcement use of GPS without a warrant violates Americans' reasonable expectations of privacy. The amicus brief was joined by Roger L. Easton, considered the father of GPS, and other technologists.

EFF was particularly gratified to see Justice Sotomayor, in concurrence, raising concerns about the failure of the Fourth Amendment caselaw to keep up with the realities of today's digital technologies. She said: "People disclose the phone numbers that they dial or text to their cellular providers, the URLS that they visit and the e-mail addresses with which they correspond to their Internet service providers, and the books, groceries and medications they purchase to online retailers . . . I would not assume that all information voluntarily disclosed to some member of the public for a limited purpose is, for that reason alone, disentitled to Fourth Amendment protection."

EFF's brief was authored by Andrew Pincus of Mayer Brown LLP and The Yale Law School Supreme Court Clinic. In addition to Roger Easton, the brief was signed by Professor Matt Blaze of the University of Pennsylvania, Professor Andrew J. Blumberg of the University of Texas at Austin, and Professor Norman M. Sadeh of Carnegie Mellon University.

For the full decision from the Supreme Court:
https://www.eff.org/files/filenode/scotusjones.pdf

Contacts:

Marcia Hofmann
   Senior Staff Attorney
   Electronic Frontier Foundation
   marcia@eff.org

Hanni Fakhoury
   Staff Attorney
   Electronic Frontier Foundation
   hanni@eff.org

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