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Warrantless GPS Tracking – A Follow Up

My article of January 30, 2012, “U.S. Supreme Court Rules Warrantless GPS Tracking of Car is Unconstitutional” discussed the case of  U.S. v. Jones  that found attaching a GPS device to vehicle, by the FBI, without a warrant, was unconstitutional.

As a result of that decision, the FBI’s General Counsel recently admitted the FBI has turned off about 3,000 GPS tracking devices.

On February 25, 2012 the Wall Street Journal (“FBI Turns Off Thousands of GPS Devices After Supreme Court Ruling“), and other new sources (e.g. FBI disabling GPS trackers to comply with Supreme Court ruling) reported that FBI General Counsel Andrew Weissmann announced at a University of San Francisco conference called “Big Brother in the 21st Century” that the FBI had turned off about 3,000 GPS tracking devices that were in use. In some cases the FBI asked for court permission to reactivate some of the devices, so they could locate them, and then remove them.

Obviously the FBI put a lot of time and effort into this program. The tracking equpment is not cheap. In one of the few reported cases in which a tracked person found a device and posted a picture of it on the internet, the FBI sent a swat time to recover its “expensive government property.” This device was identified as a Guardian ST820 made by Cobham. It appears that Cobham had a contract  (0GNODL.20URV4_GS-07F-9227S_SEIMAC) from 2005 to 2010 with the General Service Administration to provide the Guardian ST820 to federal agencies in various models, each costing from $4,781.11 (no software) to $6,504.03 (with software and subscription service). At $6,000 a pop, the 3,000 GPS tracking units, now “turned off,” cost about $18 million.  Additionally, there must have been costs of installing (secretly) and keeping track of 3,000 or more devices.  [One has to believe a good hacker with some old Garmans, and spare parts  could have put together a less expensive product; the GSA prices include $382.87 for ST820 battery packs]

Given that

  • the FBI was willing to trespass on private property (the vehicles on which the trackers were installed, and probably private land on which some vehicles were located) 3,000 times,
  • the targets apparently only found the devices in a few reported instances, and
  • the FBI has, maybe, $18 million invested in idle GPS tracking devices;

undoubtedly the FBI is going to continue using GPS tracking.

Likely the legal considerations will now turn to:

  • how to challenge search warrants for tracking,
  •  whether there are special  situations, based on exigent or or other circumstances, that may still allow warrantless installation of GPS tracking, or
  • what a person can do if he or she finds such a device attached to his or her property.

As the Romans said “Quis custodiet ipso custodes?” (“who will guard the guards themselves?” or “who watches the watchmen?”).

For those who have an interest in the technology involved and some of the stories about its use, see:

Tracking Device Teardown

Battle Brews Over FBI’s Warrantless GPS Tracking” May 9, 2011

Caught Spying on Student, FBI Demands GPS Tracker Back” October 7, 2010

FBI’s GPS Tracking Raises Privacy Concerns?”   October 27, 2010

FBI Retrieves Tracking Device from Student They Bugged After Internet Exposes Them” October 8, 2010

GSA Pricelist 2009

Tracking Device

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