At the Supreme Court: Is GPS tracking of suspects too Orwellian?
Supreme Court on Tuesday considered whether police must get a warrant before attaching a GPS tracking device to a suspect's car. The justices' posed questions that echo the Orwell novel '1984.'
Big Brother is coming, and there’s no point trying to hide.Skip to next paragraph
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That was the chilling warning that emerged during an hour-long oral argument at the US Supreme Court on Tuesday, where the justices took up a case examining the scope of Fourth Amendment privacy protections in the face of increasingly sophisticated surveillance technology.
At issue in US v. Jones is whether federal agents need a warrant to place a GPS tracking device on a suspect’s car.
Although the case involves the investigation of a suspected drug trafficker in Washington, D.C., the justices wasted no time posing an array of hypothetical examples echoing George Orwell’s novel “1984.”
“If you win this case, there is nothing to prevent the police or the government from monitoring 24 hours a day every citizen of the United States,” Justice Stephen Breyer told Deputy Solicitor General Michael Dreeben. “If you win, you suddenly produce what sounds like '1984.' ”
“This case does not involve 24-hour surveillance of every citizen of the United States,” Mr. Dreeben responded. “It involves following one suspected drug dealer as to whom there was very strong suspicion.”
In the investigation of Antoine Jones, federal agents secretly attached a GPS tracker to his car. The device was accurate to within 50 to 100 feet. It generated location and speed data every 10 seconds while the car was in motion. All resulting data were automatically stored in a government computer database. The agents tracked Mr. Jones’s car for a month.
By studying the compiled information over time, agents were able to detect patterns in Jones’s daily routine – including frequent trips to a suspected stash house in a Maryland suburb.
When agents uncovered information suggesting Jones had received a large cocaine shipment, they used the GPS data to target a raid on the stash house. They recovered 97 kilograms of cocaine, nearly a kilo of crack cocaine, roughly $850,000 in cash, and equipment used to process and package narcotics.
Jones was convicted of a drug trafficking conspiracy and sentenced to life in prison.
On appeal, his lawyer argued that the warrantless GPS surveillance violated Jones’s reasonable expectation of privacy.
Government lawyers argued that there was no difference between the use of the GPS device and the use of earlier beeper technology that allowed agents to track a suspect shipment via a concealed radio transmitter.
The Supreme Court ruled in 1983 that the use of such a device did not violate Fourth Amendment protections because there was no reasonable expectation of privacy in the public movement of a shipment from one place to another.
The appeals court in Jones's GPS case declined to apply the 1983 beeper precedent. The appeals court said GPS surveillance offered more than just an aid to ongoing physical surveillance. It empowered the government to follow Jones 24 hours a day, seven days a week for 28 days. It provided data that allowed agents to identify the totality of Jones’s movements as well as patterns within his day-to-day travels.