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Supreme Court Puts Limits On Big Brother, But Watch Out For Big Momma

The government has to get a warrant to use a GPS tracker on your car, but your mom doesn't need anyone's permission to track her kid's cell phone.

As Bugs Bunny wanders through the mad scientist’s laboratory, he passes a portrait with holes where the eyes should be. Bugs, always alert, can tell that something isn’t quite right. He turns to the camera and asks, “Did ya ever have da feelin’ ya was bein’ watched?”

I get that feeling a lot as I read about the ability of technology to track my every movement in cyberspace and in real life. Society is really struggling to strike a balance between the competing interests of security and privacy.

For example, the police often need to track a suspect, and technology can make that job much easier. Once a GPS locator is attached to a suspect’s car, the police can record the location of that car to within a few yards. But do the police need a search warrant before placing a tracking device on a suspect’s vehicle?

The United States Supreme Court recently decided that the answer is “yes.”

In Washington, D.C., the FBI placed a GPS tracker on Antoine Jones’s car and tracked it for weeks. Based on the tracking data, they were able to tie Jones to a major cocaine distributor. At trial, Jones argued that the tracking data was illegally obtained, because the FBI did not have a valid search warrant to track his car.

The government argued that it did not need a search warrant, because Jones had no reasonable expectation of privacy while he was driving around on public streets. Government lawyers pointed out that the police would not have needed a warrant to tail Jones, and claimed that using a tracker was no different. 

The Supreme Court disagreed, based on the Fourth Amendment’s ban on unreasonable searches and seizures. 

According to the court, the Fourth Amendment was originally designed to prevent the government from trespassing on real estate and other private “effects.” Placing a tracker on Jones’s car required the police to trespass on his car, which was private property, and so the police needed a warrant.

While the government may need a warrant to use tele-tracking, your mom apparently does not.

AT&T is rolling out its FamilyMap plan, which will allow Mom to locate any cell phone billed to her account (as long as the phone is on). Using this plan, she will be able to tele-track another phone to within several hundred feet is it has a GPS chip, or to within several thousand feet if it does not.

According to AT&T, FamilyMap is designed to give Mom peace of mind. She doesn’t have to worry if little Johnny got home from school safely; she can just check FamilyMap! 

I can think of a few other uses, though. Any family member can use FamilyMap.  So, wondering if the wife is really visiting a sick friend? Having a party while the parents are gone? You’ll always know where they are with FamilyMap!

The era of personal tele-tracking is just beginning. Other telecom companies are sure to follow AT&T with plans like FamilyMap, and other personal tracking devices are sure to follow.

Whether this helps people or invades their privacy depends on how the technology is used.  But one way or the other, tele-tracking  is sure to spread.

So, sorry Bugs. 

But one day soon the question won’t be whether you’re being watched; it will just be by whom.

Have a question or a suggestion for a topic? Contact Dennis at dspirgen@SpirgenLawFirm.com.

Patch posts are general discussions and should not be used as advice on any specific legal matter. If you need legal advice on a particular situation, please consult an attorney.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

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