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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.'

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“A person who knows all of another’s travels can deduce whether he is a weekly church-goer, a heavy drinker, a regular at the gym, an unfaithful husband, an outpatient receiving medical treatment, an associate of particular individuals or political groups – and not just one such fact about a person but all such facts,” the appeals court said.

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The Obama administration is asking the high court to reverse the appeals court and allow the government to secretly install GPS devices without first obtaining judicial authorization.

Dreeben told the justices that there’s no need for the government to obtain permission from a neutral judge before planting a tracking device on a car because the car would be traveling only on public roads and in public areas.

Because law enforcement officials are free to conduct warrantless surveillance in public places, the GPS surveillance should not require a warrant either, he said.

“What would a democratic society look like if a large number of people did think that the government was tracking their every movement over a long period of time?” Justice Breyer asked.

Dreeben said there is no effective way for the court to draw a line allowing some GPS surveillance in public but not others. “Better that the court should address the so-called '1984' scenarios if they come to pass rather than using this case as a vehicle for doing so,” he added.

Jones’s lawyer, Stephen Leckar of Washington, urged the court to uphold the appeals court decision.

“Society does not view as reasonable the concept that the United States government has the right to take a device that enables them in pervasive, limitless, cost-free surveillance, to completely replace the human equation,” Mr. Leckar said.

“We are not asking to make the police less efficient than they were before GPS came into effect,” he said. “We are simply asking that the use of a GPS [poses] grave threats of abuse to privacy, [and] that people have an expectation that their neighbor is not going to use their car to track them.”

Early in the argument, Chief Justice John Roberts brought the privacy issue home to the high court in a direct and personal way. He asked Dreeben whether the government would need a warrant before placing GPS devices on “our cars.”

“The justices of this court?” Dreeben asked, a bit surprised.

“Yes,” the chief justice responded.

Spectators in the court erupted in laughter.

“The justices of this court when driving on public roadways have no greater expectation [of privacy],” the deputy solicitor general informed the high court.

“So your answer is yes, you could tomorrow decide that you put a GPS device on every one of our cars, follow us for a month; no problem under the Constitution?”

Dreeben replied: “If the FBI wanted to, it could put its team of surveillance agents around the clock on any individual and follow that individual’s movements as they went around on the public streets.”

A decision in US v. Jones (10-1259) is due by next June.

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