GPS and Your Privacy

Galileo satellite in earth orbit representing GPS technology

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The use of global positioning systems (GPS) has complicated issues of legal rights to privacy. While the Fourth Amendment guarantees Americans the "right to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures," it still isn't clear how that applies to GPS data.

Americans know their smartphones are collecting GPS data, for example, but when does it become illegal for companies or governments to access that GPS data? That question has made its way through the legal system in a variety of formats, but as of March 2020, there still isn't a conclusive answer.

Here's an overview of the history of GPS, and some of the ways it's been addressed by the Supreme Court.

The Global Positioning System

The U.S. Department of Defense began working seriously on what would become GPS in the early '70s. The first "Navigation System With Timing and Ranging" satellite was launched in 1978. Fifteen years and 23 more satellites later, and the satellite positioning system became fully operational.

In the decades that followed, the system became increasingly pervasive. It is used in vehicles and mobile applications to help users navigate their way around town. It is used in video games to allow users to interact in real-time with their surroundings.

Since it was developed by the government on the taxpayer's dime, Standard Positioning Service (SPS) is available for free. There's also the more advanced Precise Positioning Service (PPS), but that is only available to the U.S. government and allied military forces.

Both SPS and PPS are forms of GPS.

GPS and Privacy Law

There have been at least three Supreme Court cases that dealt with issues of GPS data and privacy. However, none of these cases definitively ruled on how privacy law protects an American's GPS data. Instead, the Court narrowly ruled on GPS-enabled devices.

United States v. Jones

One of the earliest instances of GPS technology creeping into the privacy law conversation came once law enforcement started using it to track suspects by attaching devices to vehicles. One case on this issue, United States v. Jones, made it to the Supreme Court in 2011. The Court's decision declared that attaching a GPS device to a vehicle does constitute a "search," as it pertains to the Fourth Amendment.

That definition effectively made the bugging of the defendant's car illegal, but for specific reasons. First, the car was bugged with a GPS tracker outside of the specifications of the search warrant (the warrant had expired by one day and the GPS device was placed in Maryland, while the search warrant was issued in the District of Columbia). Secondly, the tracking involved a device being placed inside the suspect's car.

This narrow ruling means that the Supreme Court's decision had less to do with GPS tracking and more to do with the physical placement of a tracking device. The Court didn't rule on whether it would've been legal for police to acquire that GPS data from a Google account's history of using Google Maps, for example. Therefore, legal issues concerning personal privacy and GPS devices are ongoing.

Riley v. California

GPS data next came into play for the Supreme Court in 2014, with the case of Riley v. California. This case concerned a suspect who was arrested, and during the arrest, a police officer seized a cell phone from the person's pocket.

While searching through the cell phone, allegedly incriminating images and messages were discovered, which ultimately resulted in enhanced charges against the suspect. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled that this was unlawful, and the officer should've obtained a warrant before searching through the suspect's phone.

None of the data obtained in this case concerned GPS location, but the Court specifically mentioned in its opinion that "the sum of an individual's private life can be reconstructed through a thousand photographs labeled with dates, locations, and descriptions." The Court goes on to mention several other ways that smartphones routinely store location information, and how that information should require a search warrant to obtain.

However, this ruling ultimately hits the same roadblock as United States v. Jones. What's at issue here is a physical device — a phone — and not GPS data itself.

The GPS data on your phone is protected because it is stored on your phone, which constitutes a piece of your physical property.

Carpenter v. United States

In 2018, the Supreme Court ruled that a search warrant supported by probable cause was needed to access location information about a suspect's cell phone. This ruling came out of the case Carpenter v. United States. However, this case didn't deal with GPS data at all.

Instead, it concerned the use of cell-site location information (CSLI). This information is collected by a cell phone carrier, and it has to do with the cell phone towers your phone communicates with every time you make a phone call or send a text message.

GPS doesn't use corporate cell towers, it only uses the taxpayer-funded satellites in orbit around the planet. Therefore, a ruling on cell tower data doesn't necessarily extend to GPS data.

The Bottom Line

While the Supreme Court has yet to rule specifically on whether an American's GPS data is covered by privacy laws, it's clearly an issue of concern. As Americans continue to buy GPS-enabled products and incorporate them into more aspects of their lives, their day-to-day habits are being etched into a record of GPS data. Whether that data belongs to society at large or you alone remains to be seen.