Supreme Court Defers to Congress on Smartphone Tracking

In a potential quandary for Congress, the Supreme Court ruled that government authorities must obtain a warrant before attaching GPS devices, like car-mounted electronics, to track suspects. But they didn't rule on tracing the location of mobile devices, like smartphones, that officers have never touched.

In United States v. Jones, the justices determined that the U.S. government violates constitutional protections against unreasonable searches when it "physically invades" personal property -- in this case an alleged cocaine dealer's Jeep -- to insert a location-detection tool. The device transmitted signals pinpointing the vehicle's location within one hundred feet to a government computer, according to the court's opinion.

But Monday's ruling does not address the legality of tracking mobile devices without handling them -- a debate that is sure to intensify as location-identification services become ubiquitous in society. The justices underscored that unresolved privacy issues remain:

"If longterm monitoring can be accomplished without committing a technical trespass -- suppose, for example, that the federal government required or persuaded auto manufacturers to include a GPS tracking device in every car -- the court's theory would provide no protection," Justice Samuel Alito wrote. "For example, suppose that the officers in the present case had followed [the] respondent by surreptitiously activating a stolen vehicle detection system that came with the car when it was purchased."

Justice Sonia Sotomayor agreed with Alito:

"With increasing regularity, the government will be capable of duplicating the monitoring undertaken in this case by enlisting factory- or owner-installed vehicle tracking devices or GPS-enabled smartphones," she stated. "GPS monitoring generates a precise, comprehensive record of a person's public movements that reflects a wealth of detail about her familial, political, professional, religious, and sexual associations . . . The government can store such records and efficiently mine them for information years into the future."

In a way, the judicial branch passed the baton to the legislative branch for closure on the executive branch's case. The Justice Department had argued authorities don't need a warrant to track a person's movements on public streets.

"Concern about new intrusions on privacy may spur the enactment of legislation to protect against these intrusions," Alito acknowledged. "This is what ultimately happened with respect to wiretapping . . . In circumstances involving dramatic technological change, the best solution to privacy concerns may be legislative."

Lawmakers who have supported bills banning cellphone-tracking took advantage of the ruling to press for permanent protections.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said in a statement, "It seems that a majority of the Supreme Court would agree that secretly turning someone's cell phone into a tracking device without their knowledge is unconstitutional. However, U.S. law is woefully outdated when it comes to all kinds of location tracking technology. Congress has a responsibility to step in and provide clear rules and boundaries for the use of these technologies, so that law enforcement doesn't have to go all the way to the Supreme Court every time it needs direction."

Last Congress, Wyden introduced the Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance Act, or GPS Act, with Illinois Republican Sen. Mark Kirk and Reps. Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, and Peter Welch, D-Vt.

Goodlatte said in a statement that the high court's decision "confirms the fact that a warrant is necessary for tracking an individual's movements with a GPS device . . . However, the court stopped short of requiring a warrant for all geolocation information including that obtained from mobile telephones."