SCOTUS to consider major GPS privacy case

The exterior view of the U.S. Supreme Court is seen in Washington, D.C.

United States vs. Jones has to do with whether the police will be allowed to track someone using a GPS device for 30 days without a warrant. The case traces back to a case where police did obtain a warrant while tracking a suspected drug dealer. But the warrant was delivered in 11 days when it was supposed to be delivered in 10 and it was served in Maryland but issued in Washington, D.C.

We speak with George Washington University law professor Jeffrey Rosen about the case. Rosen says of the case, "Based on the search, they found evidence that (the suspect) was indeed dealing drugs. They indicted and convicted him and he objected that the evidence had been illegally obtained because it was obtained without a valid warrant."

"Three federal appellate courts have considered this question and they're divided. Two courts have said there's no problem with warrantless surveillance. In an opinion by Judge Richard Posner, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit said we have basically no expectation of privacy in public because it's theoretically possible that a neighbor could follow us or the cops could put a tail on us. The court held that we have to assume the risk that the cops will use this technological device to achieve the same result."

"But in a different opinion, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit disagreed. Judge Douglas Ginsberg held that we do have some expectation of privacy and anonymity in public. Ginsberg said there's a tremendous difference between putting a tail on someone for a hundred miles, which the Supreme Court has approved in the past, and tracking their movements 24/7 for a month. Ginsberg said we do have an expectation of privacy in the whole of our movements because prolonged surveillance, ubiquitous surveillance, can reveal much more about us than just a snapshot and the amount of information that can be achieved from prolonged ubiquitous tracking is just as invasive as the information that could be obtained by breaking into the home which ordinarily does require a warrant. So that's the way it's going up to the court and we'll see what the justices say."

Rosen says this case isn't just about warrants and GPS devices. It could ultimately set precedent for how the court views the right to privacy: "What makes the case so fascinating is the court has dodged all these crucial issues for years. And what it's now confronted pretty squarely in this case is the question of whether we really should have expectation of privacy in the face of proliferating cutting edge technology or not. That has less to do with the reality on the ground, how many devices there are out there, than to what the justices think people should expect in free society. Is there some degree of anonymity we need in order to live spontaneous and free lives? That's what the court's going to have to engage."

Also in this program, a Robot Roundup: Four stories on robot advances. Robot telemarketers may be allowed to call your cell phone, robots are helping old Japanese people, robots are resembling gigantic militarized dogs, and robots and rats are MERGING.

About the author

John Moe is the host of Marketplace Tech Report, where he provides an insightful overview of the latest tech news.

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