Does What Happens in Your Car; Stay in Your Car?
Maybe not, say OnStar and the Washington, D.C. Police
By: Laura A.
Recently, the United States Supreme
Court heard argument on the case of United States v.
Jones. At issue is the legality of the Washington, D.C.
police surreptitiously - and without a warrant - placing a GPS
tracking device on a suspect's car, and then using information
taken from the GPS to convict him of drug trafficking. Nearly
all of the judges expressed their concern with the government's
position, but the questioning by certain justices was particularly
pointed. Concerned that a decision in favor of the police
could facilitate a rise of the machines, Justice Alito posited:
"With computers, it's now so simple to amass an enormous amount of
information about people that consists of things that could have
been observed on the streets," suggesting that the surveillance
state envisioned in George Orwell's classic cautionary tale
1984 could indeed become reality if the Court decided this
case without distinguishing between being tracked via GPS and being
tailed on the sidewalk. The government, on the other hand,
argued that cars traveling on public roadways do not have the same
Fourth Amendment privacy protections afforded citizens in their
home and placing a GPS device on the car to track those same
movements is not a "trespass" under the Fourth Amendment.
The implication of using GPS devices for tracking people does
not simply include someone suspected of engaging in criminal
activities. Reports have recently emerged that OnStar
reserved the right to track and sell information about a vehicle's
location and speed even after the driver cancelled service by
altering their Terms and Conditions with their customers.
OnStar, a division of General Motors, provides a variety of
services to vehicles including driving directions and vehicle
diagnostics. Concerns about potential abuse of this
information - tracking consumer location and speed - fueled privacy
advocates and prompted quick responses from OnStar and General
Motors to soften the public outcry. Interestingly enough,
this is the same type of data and information that the government
is seeking to collect in the Jones case. The
collection of this information by a private corporation creates
even more concerns for the Federal Trade Commission, and, more
importantly, the general public.
Of course, the question then becomes "What can I do to protect
myself from this unwanted intrusion?" For starters, read very
carefully the privacy policies of any product or service you
use. That should include anything with the capability of
transmitting information, whether you activate the service or
not. Companies are required to publish their privacy
policies, and if you can't locate the information easily, the best
place to look is the corporation or product's website. If you
still can't find it, contact the company directly and request the
information in writing. Along the same lines, a "terms and
conditions" agreement may also be required prior to using or
downloading software, or accessing a website. They are also
binding and may be several pages in length, and as soon as you use
the product or service, you become bound by that agreement,
regardless of whether you read it or not. Privacy policies
also become binding on you once you purchase the product or use the
service, so if you are not satisfied with the company's policies,
you need to discard or recycle the product and/or discontinue use
of the service.
Unfortunately, we will not have an answer from the Supreme Court
on the GPS tracking issue until at least June, 2012. Until
then, we recommend carefully reading privacy statements and terms
and conditions before using or buying any product or
About the author: Laura A.
Rogal is an attorney at the Phoenix law firm of Jaburg Wilk. She assists
clients with their intellectual
property legal needs including
internet law, social media, domain disputes and commercial
litigation. Laura can be reached at email@example.com
This article is not intended to provide legal advice. Always
consult an attorney for legal advice for your particular
3200 North Central Avenue
. Phoenix . Arizona