GPS tracking has become so advanced and so affordable that just about anyone with a few hundred dollars can keep a watchful eye on someone if they want to badly enough. Even local and federal law enforcement agencies are getting in on the action, regularly using sophisticated GPS trackers to monitor unsuspecting targets as they go about their days. According to the U.S. Supreme Court, however, this may be a “bridge too far,” so to speak — a recent ruling indicated that GPS trackers are a form of search and seizure, and using one without following the proper procedures could be a violation of the Fourth Amendment.
The Supreme Court
In the case of Torrey Dale Grady v. North Carolina, the Supreme Court essentially took a bold step toward updating the Fourth Amendment to take into consideration the advanced technology now on display in government agencies around the country. Though the case itself was returned to the North Carolina high court, the Supreme Court did take the opportunity to unanimously rule on the GPS tracking technology itself. Simply put, they indicated that if a law enforcement or other government official places a GPS tracker on someone’s person, in their car or on any other personal item they have, it counts as a search — end of story.
A senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an advocacy group keeping a watchful eye on the technology that watches citizens each day, was very pleased with the decision. Asked about the case, Jennifer Lynch said, “It doesn’t matter what the context is, and it doesn’t matter whether it’s a car or a person. Putting that tracking device on a car or a person is a search.”
The case itself is actually extremely interesting because GPS tracking was not done without Torrey Dale Grady’s knowledge. In 2013, Grady was ordered by a judge in North Carolina to wear a GPS monitor at all times so that authorities could keep a watchful eye on him. He challenged this decision, taking his situation all the way to the Supreme Court, under the basis that the tracking device absolutely qualified as an unreasonable search.
GPS Tracking in Action
Despite this ruling, GPS tracking as a concept isn’t going anywhere. Many sophisticated devices offer real-time tracking over the internet for $120 or less, making them perfect for both law enforcement professionals and concerned private citizens. The STI_GL300 Real-Time GPS tracker, for example, is billed as a perfect solution for tracking everything from people to vehicles to equipment and more. It allows the person doing the tracking to not only access the GPS information from anywhere using a tablet or phone, but it also supports automated phone and email alerts so no movement is missed.
The XT-2000 OBD Real-Time GPS Vehicle Tracker is another example, which is designed to plug effortlessly into nearly any modern car. It also allows for real-time tracking over an internet connection and supports automatic alerts and more.
It’s important to note that the Supreme Court ruling does NOT mean that GPS tracking is somehow bad or that it doesn’t bring with it a wide range of different benefits that can’t be ignored. Businesses who are concerned with things like employee theft or even operational inefficiencies regularly use GPS tracking as a form of asset management, for example. There is also a wide range of different (totally legitimate) reasons why home users would need this technology.
All the Supreme Court has done is taking a small but significant step toward protecting the Fourth Amendment rights of an entire generation who will grow up surrounded by this type of technology on a daily basis. As the Constitution is a document that was always meant to be updated as time goes on and as contexts change, this is very much a good thing and should be celebrated.