by Robert Gellman, JD, Communia Blog, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, January 25, 2012
The Supreme Court’s decision in U.S. v. Jones, a case that addressed the use of global positioning system GPS tracking devices for law enforcement purposes, is hot privacy news. Almost immediately, the decision sparked numerous and sometimes conflicting comments. The issue here is whether the decision will prompt Congress to consider legislation and what that legislation might look like.
The majority opinion by Justice Antonin Scalia used a property-based approach to conclude that attaching a GPS device to a car and using the GPS to monitor the car’s movements on public streets constitutes a search or seizure within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. The narrow basis for the decision turned on the fact that the government physically occupied private property the car for the purpose of obtaining information.
A concurring opinion by Justice Samuel Alito and joined by three of his colleagues reached the same outcome, but Alito wanted to determine whether the car owner’s reasonable expectations of privacy were violated by the long-term monitoring of his car. Essentially, Alito thought that the majority’s property analysis was not scalable to present day surveillance issues and that an expectation of privacy standard would reach the same result without the baggage of the property-based approach.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor joined the majority opinion, but she also filed a concurring opinion. She observed that physical intrusion is not always necessary for surveillance e.g., by tracking a cell phone and argued that how surveillance is done may affect an expectation of privacy. So in her opinion Sotomayor asked whether people reasonably expect that their movements will be recorded in a manner that allows the government to ascertain their political and religious beliefs, sexual habits, and more. She even questioned the premise that an individual has no reasonable expectation of privacy in information voluntarily disclosed to third parties. That was the holding in United States v. Miller, 425 U. S. 435, 443 1976 , a case increasingly criticized by privacy advocates as inconsistent with life today.
For full text of this article, which provides an insightful overview of what crafting and passing updated privacy legislation might entail, visit Legislating Privacy After US v Jones « Communia.
Robert Gellman, JD is a privacy and information policy consultant in Washington, D.C. He served for 17 years on the staff of a subcommittee in the House of Representatives. He can be reached at bob [at] bobgellman. [dot] com or visit his website at http://www.bobgellman.com/. Also check out his article Location Privacy: Is Privacy in Public a Contradiction in Terms?
- Supreme Court GPS Tracking Case: Round-up and Resources (geodatapolicy.wordpress.com)
- Supreme Court Relies on Kerr’s Theory of Fourth Amendment and Property (geodatapolicy.wordpress.com)
- Location Privacy: Is Privacy in Public a Contradiction in Terms? (geodatapolicy.wordpress.com)
We would like to invite you to read Geodata Policy’s first guest blog posting by Robert Gellman. This article is timely given the update of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) and the recent Federal Trade Commission (FTC) report, Protecting Consumer Privacy in an Era of Rapid Change, which highlights the sensitivety of “precise geolocation data” (p. 61). Robert Gellman is a privacy and information policy consultant in Washington, DC: http://www.bobgellman.com/.
Is Privacy in Public a Contradiction in Terms?
Robert Gellman, Privacy and Information Policy Consultant
February 21, 2011
Is there such a thing as privacy in a public space? When you walk down the street, anyone can observe you, make notes about your location, appearance, and companions, and even take your picture. If so, then it would seem that you have no reasonable expectation of privacy.
However, most people would be unhappy if they found themselves followed all day. For most of human existence, this type of surveillance was impractical because of the great expense of following someone around.
This is a good place to pause and say that this is a short essay and not a law journal article. The law of surveillance is complex, and the answers can be different if the person doing the surveillance is a government agent, an employer, or an average person, or if you’re taking pictures or recording conversations.
Is privacy in public a case of the irresistible force meeting the immoveable object? Should your location privacy deserve some protection even when you are in public?
These questions are much harder to answer today because of technology. It’s cheap to track people in public today. There’s no need to pay a private detective. Technology does it. First on the list are cell phones. Your cell phone broadcasts your location constantly to a cell phone tower, and your provider knows where you are. Cameras are everywhere, taking pictures in malls, parking lots, building corridors, on the street, at red lights, and on the highway. Facial recognition software is getting better all the time. Photos placed on the Internet can be scanned to identify individuals as well as the date and GPS coordinates where the photos were taken. Digital signage in stores and elsewhere can record behavior, approximate age, gender, and ethnicity, and can sometimes identify individuals using a variety of devices. I recommend a pioneering report on digital signage by my colleague Pam Dixon. It’s at the World Privacy Forum website.
Even though not all the technological and organizational links are yet in place, it’s not hard to envision the possibility that, in the near future, every action you take outside your home may be observed and recorded by someone. This is more or less what happens today online, where there is a good chance that some website or advertiser (and probably many more than one) records every site you visit, every page and ad you see, and every click you make.