Monday, May 11, 2009

GPS Tracking – A Modern Day Issue

Glenn Beck brought up a news item today, the use of GPS tracking by agents of the government without a warrant . The whole things stems from a fellow who’d been stalking a woman, the woman notified her local police and a GPS device was attached to the suspect’s vehicle to verify that he had indeed been stalking her.

“Officers do not need to get warrants beforehand because GPS tracking does not involve a search or a seizure, Judge Paul Lundsten wrote for the unanimous three-judge panel based in Madison.”


“…The tracking did not violate constitutional protections because the device only gave police information that could have been obtained through visual surveillance, Lundsten wrote.”

The appeals court also admitted they felt “more than a little troubled” and have asked lawmakers to create legislation to regulate the use of GPS so as to properly define lawful use by police and private citizens.
At this point, and having read only what has been offered, I would have to agree with the findings of the court. I also applaud the court for its conclusion that with the advent of new technology, the legislature needs to write laws that reflect a reasonable and prudent use of these new technologies; but that it is not the court’s duty to legislate, only to make findings based on current laws.

This new Pandora’s Box has been opened and deserves a healthy examination of the pro’s and con’s which will eventually come back to bite us on the butt. If we as citizens expect well written laws it is up to us to alert our representatives as to the importance of individual concerns within the text of such legislation.

Let me lay some framework around which other ideas may be added. I’ll start with transponder technology which toll road authorities use to facilitate counting how many times authorized vehicles pass check points. This ability permits the authorized vehicle to drive at freeway speeds while being charged for the use of a span of roadway; no need to stop and chunk coins into a collection basket and the arrangement is mutually agreed to be efficient. I pay my toll road fees in advance through my credit card and as the amount dwindles down based on daily usage, my account is once again billed and a statement is sent for my verification.

The banking industry has similar technology to help in the apprehension of bank robbery suspects. A packet of money containing transponder technology is supposed to be slipped into the sack at the time of a hold up. That transponder is activated by the bank and the police are notified to track the “rat pack” which emits a recognizable signal to indicate its proximity to patrol units equipped with sensors. Such a tracking system does work and the only folks complaining are convicted robbery suspects.

There are private industry niche opportunities which use similar technologies to recover stolen vehicles and even stolen lap top computers. I don’t see folks getting upset with the use of transponder or GPS type technologies which help to keep property in the hands of rightful owners.

My own wish would be for police to use toll road transponders to locate stolen vehicles by placing the same kind of reading device on major streets and roads about town, the same readers as the toll road authority, except instead of collecting tolls these devices would be scattered throughout the city as a means of identifying and tracking stolen vehicles or other “vehicles of interest”.

Each transponder emits a unique identifiable signal, not much different than a fingerprint or a DNA sample. I see no reason why the information associated with these transmitters could not be shared from one agency to another.
As an example only; say my truck was stolen; it would only be a matter of instructing a computer that as of 14:27 hours a red Dodge Dakota equipped with toll road pass # KRT123587, belonging to T. F. Stern was stolen and to alert any and all police agencies in the area that its transponder signal can be identified should it pass within range of a reading device. Here again, the information supplied to any enforcement agency was based on information at the rightful owners discretion.

I also see no problem with the State incorporating a similar tracking module on every vehicle at the time of registration for license plates; vehicles, after all, are to be used on public roads and there should be no paranoia issues with being identifiable either visually or technologically.
The tracking device would have to be permanently mounted to the frame or other permanent part of the vehicle rather than as part of the license place since thieves are fairly adept at stealing license plates. These tracking devices would aid in the recovery of stolen vehicles and/or vehicles of interest. If properly designed these devices could be triggered to transmit, such as a license plate number given the authorities by a qualified witness. This would be a great tool for apprehending criminals; however, there is room for such a tool to be abused without limits placed upon such use.

I recognize the shift from “clearly defensible” toward an area where abuse might have the opportunity to pervert a good thing. I invite an open discussion to bring up such arguments which would make a paranoid person shake at the thought of such an abuse.

I have a feeling, call it what you will, that there should be a “probable cause” check and balance system associated with the use of tracking technologies, to include toll road transponders similar GPS devices. Police agencies should be held accountable for the use of new technologies which could or might be used in such a way as to cross the line of individual privacy. I will leave a related topic alone, at this time, the use of similar identifying devices on humans such as implanted chips or tracking codes on driver’s licenses.

The use of data collected by such a device should not be permitted to be used as a “stand alone witness”, either in civil or criminal proceedings and must have specifically worded language requiring a human being to act as verification of any actual crime or suspected behavior associated with the use of such a device.
This view is similar to my stated thoughts regarding the inappropriate use of cameras empowered to capture traffic violators running red lights or speeding. Mechanical devices should not be permitted as “stand alone witnesses” for enforcement and collection of revenue. Our society should continue to demand the ability to confront any and all witnesses for testimony supplied to a court of law; a device, regardless of how well it performs the functions for which it was implemented, can never stand alone as a witness which can be cross examined.

The Wisconsin appeals court, going back to the originally linked article, stated the information gained via the GPS unit could have easily been acquired through a visual verification and thereby did not violate the suspect’s right to privacy. The appeals court additionally stated the device was placed on the suspect’s vehicle while it was in a publicly accessible location and so did not violate a right afforded by a private and inaccessible location such as within a dwelling or any other protected area.

Future legislation directed toward transponder or GPS technologies would need to address these issues to clearly define how and when such devices are to be attached or used in order to comply with a wary public’s natural desire to protect civil liberties from abuse and government usurpation. Okay, here’s your chance to unload or add to what I’ve submitted.

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