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Cost of tracking suspects by GPS so low that legal questions are raised: Study

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The number of people that have never used Google (or Apple) Maps to route themselves to a destination is dwindling, and ubiquity has not gone unnoticed by law enforcement. In a paper published Thursday in the Yale Law Journal, researchers Kevin Bankston and Ashkan Soltani calculated the cost -- per hour -- for law enforcement to track a person’s location, breaking down various methods, and the cost differences now that most smartphones and tablets have GPS functionality may astound you.

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The breakdown is actually in part III of the paper, "Tiny Constables and the Cost of Surveillance: Making Cents Out of United States v. Jones." The overall scope of the paper is to "draw together threads from the Jones concurrences and existing legal scholarship and combine them with data about the costs of different location tracking techniques to articulate a cost-based conception of the expectation of privacy that both supports and is supported by the concurring opinions in Jones."

In other words, the paper is designed to look at SCOTUS' decision, which said that "government surveillance of one’s public movements for twenty-eight days using a GPS device violated a reasonable expectation of privacy and constituted a (violation of the) Fourth Amendment search," but did not provide a clear ruling that could be applied in other government surveillance cases, and determine just how easy -- and cheap -- advances in technology have made such tracking.

Section III evaluated the use of every method from officers on foot to police-planted GPS devices to obtaining a suspect’s location from their cell phone. As examples:

  • A five-car “surveillance box” operation that has cars ready to inconspicuously tail a suspect in any direction -- which is the standard procedure recommended in law enforcement manuals (and seen in police reality TV) -- costs about $275 an hour.
  • Tracking the same suspect with a police-installed GPS device costs as little as 36 cents an hour.
  • Using a cellular carrier to track can cost far less if Sprint is the carrier -- as little as four cents an hour -- but rises to $5.21 an hour for short-term tracking via AT&T and $1.19 an hour for longer term operations. T-Mobile charges $4.17 per hour. Verizon was not listed.

The goal of the research, the researchers wrote, was to demonstrate that cell phone and GPS surveillance has shifted both cost and technology to the point that it represents a "radical shift in police power." Cost, the report said, can (and should) be a "powerful yardstick" in evaluating the privacy impact of technology in the hands of authorities.

For now, our modest hope is to inspire an enterprising criminal defense attorney to articulate cost-based arguments when moving to suppress GPS or cell tracking data. Our less modest hope is to see that motion granted.

Soltani added,

When it was physically impossible to track everyone at the same time, you didn’t need a law for it. What we’re saying is that technology changes what’s possible, and as a result, we may need to add legal barriers to compensate for those changing technical barriers.

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