Supreme Court backs privacy over police in GPS case

Justices rule 9-0 that police must acquire warrants before using GPS trackers

Score one for privacy rights in the digital age.

The United States Supreme Court in a unanimous 9-0 ruling today issued a resounding rebuke to law enforcement officials who had argued they had carte blanche to place GPS tracking equipment on anyone's vehicle without judicial oversight.

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The Wall Street Journal reports:

The Supreme Court ruled Monday that police must obtain a warrant before attaching a GPS tracker to a suspect's vehicle, voting unanimously in one of the first major cases to test constitutional privacy rights in the digital age.

The government argued that attaching the tiny device to a car's undercarriage was too trivial a violation of property rights to matter, and that no one who drove in public streets could expect his movements to go unmonitored. Thus, the technique was "reasonable," meaning that police were free to employ it for any reason without first justifying it to a magistrate, the government said.

All nine Supreme Court justices recognized this as unconstitutional nonsense, although they differed in terms of their legal reasoning.

And while the majority decision was narrowly written to apply to the case at hand, it would seem as though the justices have signaled a broad willingness to constrain the more egregious abuses of digital privacy rights, for example the willy-nilly rummaging through laptops and cell phones at U.S. airports that has caused Americans travelling internationally such hassles.

I'm not saying that digital privacy rights have been enshrined - I am not a legal expert - but merely that it would appear difficult for the justices to find a meaningful distinction in principle between the two scenarios.

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