Voicing his discontent with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling in U.S. v. Pineda-Moreno, which declared the warrantless use of a GPS tracking device to be constitutional, Chief Judge Alex Kozinski warned, “We are taking a giant leap into the unknown, and the consequences for ourselves and our children may be dire and irreversible. Some day, soon, we may wake up and find we’re living in Oceania.”
Indeed, we are already living in George Orwell’s totalitarian state known as Oceania, where the all-seeing government sees and tracks everything we do. By asserting that the police can constitutionally sneak onto a private driveway without a warrant and stick a GPS tag on your car so that they can remotely track you, the Ninth Circuit didn’t necessarily break any new ground. Rather, they merely confirmed what we have suspected all along: that the concept of private property is dead and along with it, the right against unreasonable searches and seizures once protected by the Fourth Amendment.
Having outstripped our ability to control it, technology has become our Frankenstein’s monster. Delighted with technology’s conveniences, its ability to make our lives easier by doing an endless array of tasks faster and more efficiently, we have given it free rein in our lives, with little thought to the legal or moral ramifications of doing so. Thus, we have no one but ourselves to blame for the fact that technology now operates virtually autonomously according to its own invasive code, respecting no one’s intimate moments or privacy and impervious to the foibles of human beings and human relationships.
For example, consider how enthusiastically we welcomed Global Positioning System (GPS) devices into our lives. We’ve installed this satellite-based technology in everything from our phones to our cars to our pets. Yet by ensuring that we never get lost, never lose our loved ones and never lose our wireless signals, we are also making it possible for the government to never lose sight of us, as well.
GPS, originally known as Navstar, is funded and operated by none other than the U.S. Department of Defense. The U.S. military controls the satellites used by GPS devices and transmits signals to ground GPS receivers.
While many Americans are literally lost without their GPS devices, it has also become a ubiquitous convenience for law enforcement agencies. For example, in 2009, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) introduced a prototype “smart” police car. This smart cruiser is the most advanced of its kind, equipped with license plate cameras, computers, a GPS projectile launcher, and even a heat detector in the front grill to differentiate between people and animals. If a stolen or wanted vehicle comes up in the scan, the license plate reader will automatically label the vehicle as a threat and a camera will take a colored picture of the vehicle and send the GPS coordinates of the vehicle to the police station.
In addition to the high tech license plate readers and cameras, the smart car is equipped with GPS-enabled projectiles. The device is similar to a dart launcher and is near the front bumper of the vehicle. The projectile is three inches in diameter. When engaged, the device shoots the GPS projectile at the target vehicle. The law enforcement agent inside the car arms and fires the projectile. With the aid of a military grade laser, the law enforcement agent can aim with tremendous precision. Once attached to the target, the projectiles have the capability of tracking the target in real time for days.
Frankly, given how attached Americans have become to their cell phones, and how easily trackable, as a result, it’s a wonder the government even bothers with any other technologies. Currently, cell phone service providers have the ability to pinpoint a phone’s location to an area as small as a city block. Most corporate cell phone providers can also store vast amounts of data containing the location of the cell phone and its specific uses (such as the contents of text messages and websites visited), sometimes even in real time.
In an effort to handle the massive amount of requests from federal agents for access to the GPS data, several cell phone providers now offer automated services for obtaining internal cell phone data. Sprint Nextel, for example, has an entire website devoted to cell phone records that law enforcement officers can access. Called the Mobile Locator, the system allows law enforcement to access information, such as call history, without a search warrant.
Intelligence and law enforcement agencies insist that a search warrant is not required to access the information because cell phone users, having disclosed their information to a third party, have no reasonable expectation of privacy anyhow. All the while, the American people remain clueless about the existence of these databases, the ease with which law enforcement agents can access them, and their overall loss of privacy.
The bottom line: there really is no place to hide in the American Oceania.
Constitutional attorney and author John W. Whitehead is founder and president of The Rutherford Institute. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Information about The Rutherford Institute is available at www.rutherford.org.