Friday, May 8, 2009

Where do we draw the line?

We live in an increasingly public world. Many of us choose to put large chunks of our personal lives online (I am quite guilty of this), and are faced with daily decisions about just how far to go, how much to share. But anyone who puts anything onto the internet should know that whatever goes there has the potential to be seen. By anyone looking.

Still, it's our decision what and whether or not to put anything out there. And traditionally, it has been our right to remain private citizens off-line, in our own homes, cars, etc. More and more, however, our day-to-day preambulations are recorded by a variety of surveillance devices--whether we like it or not. And more than ever, we're faced with a serious dilema: How far do we let it go? How much surveillance do we allow in the name of security?

I'm torn. I just read about the Wisconsin appeals court upholding the right of police to attach GPS devices to cars without warrant, and I admit to being more than a little concerned. Heck, the court itself apparently felt the same way, as they were apparently "'more than a little troubled' by that conclusion and asked Wisconsin lawmakers to regulate GPS use to protect against abuse by police and private individuals."

If the court itself that issued the ruling in favor of the practice has doubts about that very practice, you know it's a tricky subject.

The circumstances that brought the case before the court make things even more gray: A man suspected of stalking is investigated by police, who affix a GPS tracking device to his car and discover that he is, indeed, following the woman who lodged the complaint against him. Man is tried, sentenced, and thrown in jail.

Believe you me, I'm all for stalkers and other criminals getting their just desserts. But that doesn't stop me from feeling incredibly ill-at-east about this ruling. The defendant claimed that the GPS tracking violated his 4th Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure, but the court came to the conclusion that since this was just tracking, it didn't constitute actual, physical search and/or seizure. And I can see the reasoning behind that. It makes sense.

But maybe there ought to be a reasonable expectation of privacy, of not being secretly tracked without warrant. And honestly, if the law allowed for GPS tracking of suspects but required a warrant to do so, I don't know that I'd be complaining. The fact of the matter, however, is that we've now given carte blanche to law enforcement agencies to essentially spy on anyone they so choose. Do I think all police are going to abuse this power? Certainly not, but I'm also not naive enough to think that no cop anywhere will ever take advantage of this ability.

So where do we draw the line?

In 2008, UW police began a "bait bike" program wherein the put GPS tracking devices on bicycles around campus, then used the information to hunt down the people who made off with the bikes. Is this an appropriate use of the technology and law? I would say yes, simply because the people being tracked have actually committed a crime at that point. That's very different than mere suspicion that they might break the law (I can't help but think of the Philip K. Dick short story "The Minority Report" when this sort of thing comes up).

I don't know about you, but I don't particularly relish the idea of being treated like I'm guilty until proven innocent. And I have a sneaking suspicion that the framers of the Constitution would feel the same way.

So we must ask ourselves, do we allow for broader surveillance powers and to be treated liked we're all potential criminal suspects, or do we place boundaries on what is and is not acceptable in the pursuit of improved safety and justice? Frankly, I'm leaning strongly toward the latter decision.

(photo by Steffen M. Boelaars on Flickr)


Anonymous said...

Its called the fear factor. Thats all it is. Desperate politics to keep a highly paid state job and the public in fear. WIS is lacking leadership at all levels, that should be readily apparent. The first incorrectly installed GPS will create work for lawyers, which by the way, Madison is built upon...

Emily said...

And here I thought Madison was built on an isthmus...

MAL said...

The Fourth Amendment is in danger is being melting away under an array of decisions by the rightwing with too many liberlas in tow.

The excluioanary rule is jsut about history:

Roadblocks, GPS, it's Kathleen Falk's and other John Roberts' dream.

Mrbillsbraindrain said...

Need to know a bit more about the case sited of the stalker being tracked via GPS planted by the police. To me if the person being tracked had done all they could to stop the tracker- talking, notifying them, and as last resort getting a restraining order against them to stop the tracking- then their next step of asking the police to place a tracking device to prove they are in fact being harassed by being tracked. Tracking the violater of the restraining order is justified. How many cases of a person being attacked or murdered by a wack job who has ignored restraining orders to get to their victim are we willing to accept. I'm fine with tracking dirtbags once they have crossed the line and have been notified and or have had restraining orders issued that their behavior has consequences for them-otherwise the victims have no tools to stop them in a legal manner.

The Lost Albatross