Court Rejects Warrantless GPS Tracking
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."