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Privacy or no privacy? A critical question in the digital age


On Monday, in a unanimous 9-0 decision, the Supreme Court held that police must obtain a warrant before using a global positioning system to track suspects.

Justice Samuel Alito focused on the physical nature of attaching a GPS device to a suspect’s vehicle. 

Frankly, this is not a surprising outcome. One can easily imagine a variety of ways in which police officers maneuver themselves in order to attach these devices to cars.

A more subtle concern, however, is the issue of privacy. A warrantless search can occur if there is no reasonable expectation of privacy. So, I submit to you: do we have a reasonable expectation of privacy when it comes to not being tracked by GPS devices?

The knee-jerk reaction is to shout, “Of course we do!” No one wants the police to sneak into an open garage and attach a GPS tracker without first ensuring the existence of probable cause before a neutral and detached magistrate. 

But, under more careful thought, one can easily think of a list of devices used on a daily basis that track our every move without a physical invasion of our homes, persons or vehicles.

How many of us have a GPS device lying on the floorboard, in the glove compartment or in the middle console of our car?

How many of us have an iPhone, Droid or other type of smartphone? 

How many of us are connected to the Internet through some sort of personal device (computer, phone, iPad, etc.) as we read this?

All of those devices are passively tracking your GPS coordinates.

Our society’s acquiescence to such passive and typically undetected monitoring seems to give the police a legitimate argument for attaching GPS devices without warrants. 

Let’s be honest. Things are already crazy. Take Google for example. You and a friend can type “scuba diving” into Google, and based on your location, Internet browser, Internet provider and computer history, you will receive different results. 

Facebook is even worse. Your newsfeed adapts with links you click, status updates you like most often and who you tend to ignore. Eventually, and likely without you ever noticing, some people will disappear from your feed (without you unsubscribing) and others will begin to dominate. 

Long gone are the days of absolute control over your Internet identity, and that trend seems to be seeping into other aspects of life as technology becomes an ever-present component of our lives.

Maybe I’m paranoid, but the way we take most of this for granted opens us up for a rude awakening if one day in the future employers are allowed to pay private companies for reports on our digital identity. 

Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and many other social networking and blogging sites already serve as a means for employers to filter through equally competitive candidates. If companies are able to access a more in-depth Internet history, regardless of how many privacy protections we enlist to help us prevent this from happening, we are in trouble. 

On the other side of the coin, however, soon our generation will be in charge, and because we face the brunt of this ordeal as it is, perhaps we will be more understanding of some of our peers’ blips in their digital history. 

No matter what, a call to awareness and further understanding is key. We might laugh at the Anthony Weiners of the world who are unable to hide their indiscretions, but soon, those “hidden” digital indiscretions could be subject to public scrutiny.


Emily Stedman is a second-year law student from Marietta, Ga.