GPS tracking by P.I.s – and other characters

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.

6 thoughts on “GPS tracking by P.I.s – and other characters

  1. Good post. Very timely. I can see the growth of the use of GPS devices growing exponentially as they get smaller and cheaper, especially as crooks devise new ways to use them to commit crimes. Off the top of my head, a burglar could put one on each vehicle of a househould, and by knowing that everyone is in their respective vehicles and are miles away, he can waltz right into a home, take whatever he wants, with no fear that the homeowner could surprise him by returning unexpectedly. Particularly useful if a family is on vacation hundreds of miles away.

    I’m actually having my antagonist track one of his underlings in the wilderness with a GPS that the protagonist discovers after the deadly gun battle, which compounds his predicament because it eliminates the element of surprise for the protag to surprise the antag and stop him.

    • Thanks for your comment, Chris. As a wilderness backpacker, I love your set-up. I’m curious where your bad guy is hiding the tracker on the good guy–we’re always so aware of our gear because every inch and ounce counts!

  2. Very good Leslie. In my last novel (still shopping it) I have m PI protagonist attach a GPS to “the bad guy’s” vehicle, realizing that he might lose his license as he has no justifiable legal authorization for it. But it’s a matter of life and death so that’s the decision he makes.

    In real life, we recently attached a GPS device with signed authorization from one of the owners of the vehicle. It began as a domestic case but ended with the Sheriff’s Office arresting the driver (utilizing our GPS live data) for running a meth lab. After the arrest, the owner got the car back and I removed the device. The driver recently bonded out of jail and I understand he spends a lot of time under his car looking for GPS devices.

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