Privacy SOS

FBI pulls the plug on GPS tracking devices

How many GPS devices have been secretly installed on cars by the FBI without warrants? A hundred? A thousand? More?

The answer, according to FBI general counsel Andrew Weissmann, is closer to three thousand. That’s 3,000!

Three thousand drivers have had their movements tracked for days, weeks, possibly months by the feds. How many of them are like Yasir Afifi, a college student in San Jose, California? 

His mechanic found a strange device underneath his car when he went for an oil change. No one knew what it was, so a friend posted a picture on the Internet to see if anyone could identify it. The FBI could, and soon showed up in bulletproof vests to demand their property back.

If you find a strange device on your car, rest assured that it is no longer tracking you if Mr. Weissmann is to be believed. He claims that as a result of the Supreme Court decision in US v. Jones, the FBI has turned off the tracking devices it had installed without a warrant. 

That case involved the placement of a GPS device on a car belonging to suspected drug dealer’s wife in Washington. The car was tracked for four weeks.

The justices ruled 9-0 that this was an unconstitutional search under the Fourth Amendment. But in the majority opinion written by Justice Scalia, there was very little wiggle room for privacy rights in the digital age. 

Scalia said the act of physically attaching the device to the car was a trespass in the 18th century sense of the word and hence violated the Fourth Amendment. The Court refused to rule whether tracking by electronic means “without an accompanying trespass” is an invasion of privacy.

If our privacy rights are not entirely secured by the Jones ruling, we at least have the satisfaction of knowing that the FBI has been deprived of some of its tracking toys. If you find one, you might get a visit to reclaim it – be warned! 

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.