Summary:

GPS is great if you’re hiking or looking for a restaurant on your iPhone. But how you do feel about letting the police place the tracking te…

Big Brother is watching you
photo: Flickr / Candida.Performa (on vacation)

GPS is great if you’re hiking or looking for a restaurant on your iPhone. But how you do feel about letting the police place the tracking technology on your car? This morning, the Supreme Court is hearing a high profile case that explores how constitutional freedoms apply in the digital age.

The case involves a Washington drug dealer, Antoine Jones, who was convicted after police attached a GPS device to his car that logged his movements from one place to another. Jones argued that the tracking, which occurred without a warrant, amounted to an unreasonable search and seizure. A lower court agreed and quashed his conviction on Fourth Amendment grounds.

The Jones case grows out of two “beeper” cases from the 1980′s in which the Court said that occasional tracking was acceptable. The new case will turn on a familiar double-barreled privacy analysis: First, can people argue they have an expectation of privacy when they are driving down a public road where anyone can see them? And secondly, if they do have a privacy right, is the police search a reasonable one? (For more details, see the always-excellent SCOTUSblog).

The case provides a fascinating window into how courts are struggling to apply privacy notions developed in the 18th century to the digital age. While this tension between law and technology is as old as the country itself, it has accelerated in recent years. GPS devices and their potential to impose an Orwellian-style surveillance have particularly troubled certain judges:

“there is something creepy and un-American about such clandestine and underhanded behavior. To those of us who have lived under a totalitarian regime, there is an eerie feeling of deja vu.”

The quote is from the Chief Judge of California’s 9th Circuit and was cited in Jones’ court filing.

Today’s case, unfortunately, will have limited application to the swelling list of privacy problems associated with search and social networking companies. That is because the Fourth Amendment applies only to actions involving the government which means that an individual’s interactions on Google (NSDQ: GOOG) or Facebook typically will not attract constitutional protection.

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