Friday, October 28, 2011

Every Breath You Take

I took a ride in the Massachusetts State police helicopter once while working on a case in the District Attorney's office. It was an amazing experience. Also, it was the first time I had ever witnessed the use of GPS technology which tracked every movement of where we were in relationship to the geography below us. As a former prosecutor, I am generally in favor of technology giving law enforcement as much of an advantage as possible when it comes to fighting crime. As a parent, however, my law enforcement leanings give way a bit to concerns about Big Brother and what information should be available electronically to the entire world.

Some things seem obvious. Technology can be very useful (and sometimes critical in), helping us to enjoy life, save time, and save money. For example, social media sites are excellent tools to connect with friends with whom one has lost touch (and possibly with whom one never would have been able to reconnect but for the internet). Yet, technology can be very invasive. For example, placing every detail of one's life (personal information, specific lists of "friends," favorite websites, buying patterns, likes and dislikes, etc.) into an electronic database, seems to be a bit foolish.

But Americans are peculiar. At times, we are willing to surrender our freedoms apparently without much of a thought about the privacy implications. And simultaneously, we are quite critical of the use of technology to prevent crime.

So where is the line between helpful technology and intrusion into one's privacy. Are we really headed toward a "Majority Report" world where smart technology not only knows where we are, but precisely how to manipulate our behavior based on a data set of our intimate (psychological) preferences.

Is there a general right of privacy in the things we do in the public square (or on the highway)? Can the police track a suspect or a person of interest by using a GPS tracking device attached to a person's vehicle? The Ohio Court of Appeals, in a recent opinion (State v. Sullivan), addressed this issue.

The Court held that there were constitutional concerns, specifically Fourth Amendment implications:
When a person parks his car on a public way, he does not thereby give up all expectations of privacy in his vehicle. There is no way to lock a door or place the car under a protective cloak as a signal to the police that one considers the car private. Checking vehicle identification numbers, taking paint scrapings or observing objects in plain view of the car are minimal and momentary intrusions which can be distinguished from the installation of the GPS tracking device. . . . We are unwilling to hold that every citizen runs the risk that the government will plant a GPS tracking device in his car in order to track his movements, merely because he drives his car in areas accessible to the public. A citizen has a right to expect that when she drives her car into the street the police or anyone else will not attach a GPS tracking device to her car in order to track her without first obtaining a warrant authorizing the placement of the tracking device.

While I admit, I think it disturbing to allow the government to track one's movements without restriction. At the same time, I am concerned with hindering legitimate law enforcement investigative tools which will make us less safe as a society. As technology improves at the exponential rate which it does, the ability to harmonize these two interests is going to become more and more difficult.

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