Power Play No Game

Can a cop put a tracking device on your car without a warrant?  This question is now before the Supreme Court as they decide whether GPS tracking devices can be placed on vehicles to track suspects without a judge’s approval.

Cops have a tough job. They have to simultaneously catch bad guys/gals and preserve the rights of the people they investigate. I do not envy them. Nor do I think that most cops get their thrills from spying on the innocent. However, I do find it odd that anyone would think it OK to up and stick a tracker on any vehicle he/she chooses.

Cops don’t seem to think so, or at least those whose lawyers are arguing the case. The argument is that a suspect could be trailed “manually” on public streets by live cops and that having a device do the heavy lifting is no different.

For some years, the rule of thumb has been that one’s privacy ends at the point where there is no real expectation of privacy. A good example is my daily walk to the coffee shop. Were I for some reason embarrassed about my caffeine consumption, I would be out of luck. Anyone who knows me can find out quite easily where I go at that time of day. I can’t very well ask everyone to cover his/her eyes. Ditto for my other forays. Should I not want people to know about a trip to the local gentleman’s club, I had better not drive my vehicle there.*

The waters get a bit murkier when we venture into electronic surveillance. A suspect on whom a warrant has been issued probably should be tracked by GPS. The method is not really the question. The issue is what cops have to do to track people legitimately. A warrant is what separates legitimate searches from rogue intrusions into our private lives. As one Justice noted, this is precisely the kind of question that got the colonists so irked at the British Crown, whose representatives were notorious for riffling through private possessions on thin or non-existent grounds.

The advent of satellite photography and GPS tracking has made wonderful things possible. It’s nice to be able to prove that you weren’t at the crack house or Democratic political rally. It’s terrific to be able to send your location for friends to find you. I love “pinning” my meetings for future reference.

However, does my use of these tools suddenly signal that I do not expect to have my location private ever? Is it OK for authorities to track my physical location 24 hours a day through cell phone records even if I am not suspected of a crime? I think not. Let’s hope the Court defines the boundary between legitimate police work and illicit spying in favor of privacy.


*This is of course just an example. I have not been to a gentleman’s club in hours.

About Terry Noel

I am an Associate Professor of Management and Quantitative Methods at Illinois State University. My specialty is entrepreneurship.
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