The GPS as dashboard snitch
Data from popular navigation aid helps police. What about privacy?
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But “tracks of third parties, or of their property, without their knowledge are probably inadmissible and even illegal unless the tracks are conducted by law enforcement,” Schumann says.Skip to next paragraph
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Also, in a slap at unauthorized consumer surveillance, state courts in Connecticut and California have struck down rental-car company practices of imposing surcharges based on GPS detection of excessive speeds or prohibited out-of-state travel. California banned such tracking four years ago, but rights advocates remain wary of the expanding surveillance. “We are always concerned about individuals being tracked without their knowledge or informed consent,” says Tori Praul, privacy researcher for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California.
Advocates of the new investigative tools claim that the evidence cuts both ways. In a recent trial in Sonoma, Calif., an 18-year-old driver was acquitted of speeding charges after data from his car’s GPS unit refuted police contentions.
As with DNA evidence, lawyers must rely on expert witnesses to interpret for a jury the data provided by GPS or automotive black boxes. Jon Price, a trainer with leading GPS producer Garmin Ltd., has testified in six trials, including two murder cases, in which the tracking information helped win convictions.
“There are limitations to it,” Mr. Price says. “Especially when it comes to some things law enforcement would like to do with it. The GPS position we’re going to calculate for you is only going to be accurate within about 20 to 25 feet. If there is a question about what lane they were in or which side of a divided highway, you can’t really tell.”
In the privacy debate, courts so far have come down on the side of taking advantage of the crime-solving value of the technologies. The 7th US Circuit Court of Appeals issued a landmark ruling last year that GPS tracking of a suspected methamphetamine manufacturer didn’t constitute unreasonable search or seizure as proscribed by the Fourth Amendment.
In “It’s Already Public: Why Federal Officers Should Not Need Warrants to Use GPS Vehicle-Tracking Devices,” attorney John S. Ganz wrote in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology three years ago that since 1967, courts consistently have upheld that citizens can’t expect privacy when traveling on public roads.