GPS, Orwell, and the 4th Amendment

The 9/11 anniversary reminds us, among all the other things, of the questions of government surveillance that have arisen in the last decade, some related to terrorism, some reflecting challenges raised by new technologies, and many at the intersection of these.

This fall, the US Supreme Court will consider whether law enforcement should be able to attach a GPS tracking device on a vehicle without a warrant. Adam Liptak reports on the issue in “Court Case Asks if ‘Big Brother’ Is Spelled GPS” in today’s New York Times. Lower courts have ruled in different directions on the question.

One way to think about it is in terms of aggregating information and whether there’s an emergent property that changes how we would classify obtaining, possessing, or using information. Consider, for example, one’s daily round. Leave the house at 7:30, stop for coffee, pick up the dry-cleaning, get stuck in traffic, arrive at work, park in the lot over behind the pine trees, etc. All of these are done in public with no expectation of privacy. And then it all happens again tomorrow, and tomorrow and tomorrow. Except the dry cleaning stop is only made on Mondays and every other Friday there’s a stop at a bar on the edge of downtown. If there is a GPS attached to your car, the separate public facts of any given daily round — the sequence and full set of which perhaps only you know — are assembled as a unit of information. And, if the GPS is there for a month, both the overall, boring, day-in-day-out pattern and the regular exceptions and the truly unique exceptions are all a part of the information bundle available “out there.”

 Even if all of the component information is about mundane, innocent, non-embarrassing activities, indeed has all the properties that would exclude it from your understanding of “private” information, does your willingness to do these things in public view aggregate to willingness for information about them to be aggregated into a tracking record?

See also
New York Times. Articles on Surveillance of Citizens by Government
New York Times. Articles on Global Positioning System

Author: Dan Ryan

I'm currently an Academic Program Director at I've been a professor at University of Toronto, University of Southern California, and Mills College teaching things like human centered design, computational thinking, modeling for policy sciences, and social theory. I'm driven by the desire to figure out how to teach twice as many twice as well twice as easily.

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