Supreme Court Debates Mass Surveillance in 1984-esque Case

Here’s the story: Police convicted suspected drug dealer Antoine Jones (the Jones in this United States v. Jones case) due to evidence gathered from a GPS planted in his car. The evidence was thrown out when the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled it as violating the Fourth Amendment (no unreasonable search or seizure) because the device was planted without a warrant.

At first glance, planting a tracking device seems to be analogous to ransacking or bugging a citizen’s house, both of which violate the Constitution. But prior cases about tracking, and the pace of advancing technology, are raising new questions about privacy — to the point where the current debate is mainly focusing on the semiotics of whether placing a GPS in a car is “searching.” The heart of the case is about the potential of technology and the precedent this case would set by redefining the public and private spheres.

This isn’t the first time the Supreme Court has faced a tech-related privacy case. Take United States vs. Knotts, the 1983 case that ruled that police could track cars moving interstate ia beepers, since someone traveling in public shouldn’t have any expectations of privacy under the plain view rule. According to Deputy Solicitor General Michael Dreeban, quoted in the Washington Post, information people choose reveal to the world, “such as movements in a car on a public roadway” are unprotected.

Under the Knotts ruling, GPS tracking should be allowed. But in 1983, GPS devices didn’t exist, we weren’t experiencing 500-percent increases in Manhattan security cameras and the notion of “electronic privacy” was relatively new. But today, when GPS-enabled iPhones serve as the world’s most effective security blankets, the public and private are converging and we are closer to losing our notion of both than ever before. Thankfully, the justices seem wary of following the Knotts ruling too closely, and have been questioning whether the police could bug them (answer: yes).

Ultimately, new technology applied under old rulings and old times could mean that bugging license plates or clothes in the name of mass surveillance is seen as essentially the same as beepers in cars — after all, people are in public places, so it should all be permissible.