When 20-year-old San Francisco community college student Yasir Afifi’s mechanic found an FBI tracking device underneath his car during a routine oil change earlier this month, controversy ignited over whether such devices require search warrants.
While the usefulness of such devices is seemingly obvious, their implementation should require a court order, as warrantless use sets a troublesome precedent for personal liberties in the U.S.
Proponents favoring tracking without a warrant use legality to claim one is not needed. Authorities are legally allowed to follow an individual using actual officers in cars without a warrant. Thus, the GPS trackers do the same thing without the unnecessary financial expenses.
Police tails are an excellent way to follow suspects, but employing automated devices that track one’s location 24 hours per day, seven days per week is much different.
This opinion was expressed by a Washington, D.C., appeals court, which threw out the conviction of Antoine Jones, a suspected cocaine ring operator, because it was based on the use of a tracking device that followed the suspect for four weeks. The court concluded that it amounted to a “search” that required a warrant.
The D.C. court and two other federal appeals courts have ruled similarly, arguing that the tracker follows individuals beyond public roads into private areas that police could not enter without a warrant, according to the Associated Press.
Using information collected on private property without a warrant certainly justifies tossing out Jones’ conviction, but it may not be the most significant problem facing unchecked tracking devices.
Conventional “tailing” comes with prohibitive expenses that limit the use of surveillance techniques for only the most serious threats and suspects.
The low cost and ease that accompanies wireless tracking devices could also allow for a far greater number of suspects getting watched. This would be further exaggerated as the technology inevitably becomes cheaper and more accessible.
With this, the devices could then be planted on individual’s automobiles without a valid explanation.
Afifi, who is an American citizen, has an Egyptian father and an American mother. Despite the fact that Afifi was not a known threat, his car was outfitted with a tracking device and, after it was discovered, FBI agents stormed his home, began asking questions and told him in Arabic that they knew where he had been going and who he had been meeting. They even asked him about his upcoming trip to Dubai, according to local California news station KTVU in Santa Clara.
Technological advancements behind the devices require responsible oversight that’s just as advanced and effective.
Courts must stand up and strike down unethical use of tracking devices without a warrant.