Writers often ask whether private investigators and other characters can use Global Positioning Systems (GPS) tracking devices to follow individuals. The U.S. Supreme Court recently decided in U.S. v. Jones (see my blog post here) that law enforcement use of a GPS tracking device requires a warrant, under the 4th Amendment. (Some state courts had already reached that conclusion under state law.) But of course, the 4th Amendment doesn’t apply to actions by private citizens.
A recent article in the New York Times gives an eye-popping look at the ways private individuals are using GPS trackers–and how easy it is. Many uses are benign on the surface–tracking an elderly parent with dementia (although better, I think, to take the keys), or a young driver with a lead foot or questionable friends. Some uses raise ethical and legal dilemmas–tracking a wayward spouse, for example, or an employer watching an employee suspected of playing hookey, misusing a company-owned vehicle, or claiming expenses for trips not taken. Others could rise to the level of criminal stalking. (Check your story state for statutes defining and punishing stalking. The National Center for Victims of Crime has compiled a summary of state, federal and tribal laws on criminal and civil stalking.)
The Times quotes a private investigator as saying his “infidelity business” has dropped off, as suspicious spouses do their own electronic spying. It also reports that sales may exceed 100,000 devices a year. Most are small–about the size of those magnetic metal key holders–and most I found online were $500 or less. Some plug in to the car battery; others run on their own batteries. (The Jones decision mentions that at one point, police had to change the battery on the device in Jones’ Jeep.)
Of course, GPS devices are a great help finding your way in the wilderness, or for search and rescue squads. REI sells GPS sports watches so runners can track speed and distance. Some include heart monitors and music players. They even keep time. Golfers use devices preprogrammed with thousands of courses to plan their shots and find errant balls. (I’d need one with a long battery life.) And millions of drivers use them every day.
But using them to track someone else, without their knowledge, creates tremendous–and terrifying–potential invasions of privacy. And imagine the physical dangers your villain could design for your protagonist or fictitious victims.
I suspect we’ll see a continued increase in the good, the bad, and the very ugly uses of GPS trackers, and with that, more calls for regulation by the states, tribes, and federal government. Some states already ban their use without consent, except by law enforcement and the vehicles’ owners.
Meanwhile, think about the trouble you can cause your characters.