Authoritarians nationwide were disappointed to learn Monday that a unanimous Supreme Court had denied their ability to place hidden global-positioning-system (GPS) tracking devices on cars without a warrant. The decision is long overdue in a society where government officials have quietly turned to technology to spy on the public.
A number of lower courts saw no problem with letting police record the movements of any motorist at any time for any reason. This idea rested on the judges’ misguided notion that the right to travel by automobile is granted by the government and that by getting on the road one surrenders all expectation of privacy. The decision, penned by Justice Antonin Scalia, pushes back on that concept, explaining that the government commits a trespass when it sticks a tracking device on a car without judicial oversight.
In concurring opinions, a handful of justices preferred a more comprehensive finding that would prohibit law enforcement from obtaining surveillance information from third parties. As Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. put it, “suppose, for example, that the federal government required or persuaded auto manufacturers to include a GPS tracking device in every car - the Court’s theory would provide no protection.”
Justice Alito didn’t need to create a hypothetical, as such mandatory surveillance is here already. Since 2001, Congress and the Federal Communications Commission have required cellphone companies to implement “enhanced 911.” That means all phones must transmit their exact location through built-in GPS chips or equivalent technologies. Ostensibly, this enables emergency responders to know exactly where to go when someone dials 911, but it also enables the creation of a minute-by-minute history of where that phone, and presumably its owner, have been.
Thanks to lavish federal homeland-security grants, cities around the country have also been snapping up automated license-plate readers, which photograph and identify passing vehicles. The same technology is used in speed cameras, giving a city like Washington near-real-time surveillance capabilities at the fingertips of the police chief and mayor. It’s perfect for catching a thief. It’s equally perfect for misuse, such as setting up political opponents or just keeping tabs on a wayward spouse. The District’s favorite use is revenue generation - finding cars it can tow because of unpaid parking tickets.
There has never been any public debate about the acceptable limits of these intrusive machines. The federal government merely hands out the money and municipalities snap up the latest gadget, whether it’s needed or not - after all, it’s not their money. The Supreme Court’s ruling is bad news for the companies that sell surreptitious spy equipment, but that’s only a small part of the problem. Big Brother is already here.
The Washington Times
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