GPS and Your Privacy

Galileo, satellite, earth orbit
••• Detlev van Ravenswaay/Getty Images

Kroll predicted the Global Positioning System (GPS) would become a hot topic this year in the realm of privacy. Once again, their forecast rings true – in spades. Use of the GPS has been in the news a lot lately, especially in light of the fact that the US Supreme Court (SCOTUS) has recently handed down decisions regarding the use of the GPS, as well as opinions that will probably not make many conservatives happy.

The Global Positioning System

The GPS came into existence in the early 1970's. A series of satellites were placed in geosynchronous orbit – meaning they orbit at the exact same speed as the Earth rotates, so they are always over the same spot. At any given moment, six satellites can "see" a given location. These satellites communicate with each other and ground locations to provide location information to any receiver, as long as that receiver is connected to the network. The connection is automatic – it's not like trying to configure your wireless router with a secure home network.

Today, the system is pervasive. It is used in our vehicles and cell phones to help us get around – especially handy when we are lost, or looking for an address. Like cell phones and email, the technology has become a part of our lives that we probably wouldn't even know how to live without. Developed by the ​US Department of Defense at great expense to the American taxpayer, it is free to the world (although it's a safe bet that the US can block enemies from using it).

GPS and Privacy

The privacy issue has crept up because law enforcement has started using the GPS to track suspects by attaching devices to vehicles (which was declared unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court) and obtaining GPS information from cell providers. The practice has become so common that pricing for "surveillance fees" has been standardized [FORBES]. On the surface, it looks pricey, but when you consider that all law enforcement agencies run on government funding, it's just a number in an expense form to the agency. The bill is presented to the US taxpayer.

The case of United States vs. Jones brought the issue of GPS tracking to national headlines. The Supreme Court held that attaching the device to the Defendant's wife's vehicle constituted a breach of the 4th Amendment protection against unreasonable searches, but the reasoning was surprising.

PI Newswire (a site devoted to news of interest to private investigators, law enforcement, attorneys and forensic and financial professionals) reposted a recent article in which Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito was quoted as saying:

[E]ven if the public does not welcome the diminution of privacy that new technology entails, they may eventually reconcile themselves to this development as inevitable.

Alito seems to have a finger on the pulse here. We don't like it, but we're not going to turn in our iPhones and Droids to ensure our privacy. And while the majority opinion was that "…cell phone users have a reasonable expectation of privacy that they not be tracked…," the judges also admitted that "…with cellphone tracking, there isn't an obvious trespass — just a request. The government doesn't plant any item on your property, nor does it need to 'seize' anything."

Which brings us back to the question of privacy. By using the GPS via your car or cell phone (or just buying a car or phone with the technology built in), you are consenting to use a government-owned tracking system. This, in turn, means you are willingly sharing your location information, and therefore won't have much wiggle room if it is used to find you for an outstanding warrant, or in connection with a law enforcement operation.

Keep in mind that the whole point of the laws that are being called "invasive" (where our personal privacy is concerned) was put in place to protect America from terrorists, so the allegation that you are involved with terrorist organizations, or have somehow helped them, are sufficient to draw Federal attention.

More pointedly, while these laws are increasingly being used against the American citizens they were intended to protect, McCarthyist arguments have authorities arguing that taking a position against those laws is reason enough to be suspected of hiding something. Here ends the presumption of innocence.

So, while the US Supreme Court ruled in the United States vs Jones that the use of the GPS was unconstitutional, they have also left the door wide open to the use of cell phone information to locate and track criminals.

If privacy is a concern, or you feel this is a violation of your civil liberties, your recourse is fairly limited. Turning off a cell phone does not necessarily turn off the GPS feature. You'll want to completely remove your battery to ensure you aren't being watched. But keep in mind that this, too, will probably be viewed as further evidence of your suspicious activities.