The principal inventor of the Global Positioning System (GPS) and other leading technologists have joined the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) in urging the U.S Supreme Court to block the government from using GPS tracking without first getting a warrant, arguing that the massive collection of sensitive location data should require court oversight.
Roger L. Easton is considered the father of GPS as the principal inventor and developer of the Timation Satellite Navigation System at the Naval Research Laboratory. The current GPS is based on Timation, and its principles of operation are fundamentally identical.
In an amicus brief filed with the Supreme Court Monday in United States v. Jones, EFF, Mr. Easton, along with other technology experts, pointed out the many ways in which GPS tracking is fundamentally different from and more invasive than other surveillance technologies the court has allowed before, and how law enforcement use of GPS without a warrant violates Americans' reasonable expectations of privacy.
"This is the first case where the Supreme Court will consider automatic, persistent, passive location tracking by law enforcement," said EFF Senior Staff Attorney Marcia Hofmann.
"The government can use location information over time to learn where you go to church, what sort of doctors you go to, what meetings and activities you participate in, and much more. Police should not have blanket permission to install GPS devices and collect detailed information about people's movements over time without court review."
In Jones, FBI agents planted a GPS device on a car while it was on private property. Agents then used the GPS to track the position of the vehicle every ten seconds for a full month without obtaining a search warrant. An appeals court ruled that the surveillance was unconstitutional without a warrant, but the government appealed the decision.
"If police are allowed to plant GPS devices wherever they please, that's essentially blanket permission for widespread, ongoing police surveillance without any court supervision," said EFF Legal Director Cindy Cohn.
"It's not hard to see how that kind of leeway would be abused. We hope the Supreme Court takes a close look at how this technology works and act to protect the Fourth Amendment rights of Americans."
The brief was authored by Andrew Pincus of Mayer Brown LLP and The Yale Law School Supreme Court Clinic. It was also signed by the Center for Democracy and Technology, Professor Matt Blaze of the University of Pennsylvania, Professor Andrew J. Blumberg of the University of Texas at Austin, and Professor Norman M. Sadeh of Carnegie Mellon University.
For the full amicus brief in U.S. v. Jones:
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