The iFixit team took a break from tearing down iPads to take a look at the FBI's GPS tracking device used in surveillance. The scary thing is, the FBI doesn't need a warrant to use it.
The hardware hackers over at iFixit disassembled and
analyzed the vehicle location tracker used by the Federal Bureau of
Investigation. The simple GPS-enabled device can be used by the United States
government to track citizens without a warrant.
The iFixit group rips open new gadgets and examines their
internal components and publishes their findings. The group received an FBI
tracking device from environmentalist activist Kathy Thomas who found it under
her car six years ago, Wired's
reported on May 9. Wired worked with iFixit to take apart the
"Being in its presence, we can almost feel our civil
liberties being flushed down the toilet," iFixit
wrote in its analysis.
While it's unclear how many people are tracked with GPS
devices every year, based on recent lawsuits and news reports it's apparent
that FBI agents routinely use them as part of surveillance. The GPS vehicle
tracker collects rudimentary information, as all it can say is the vehicle went
to a certain location but not who. One reason for its popularity amongst law
enforcement circles may be because in most jurisdictions, investigators don't
need a court warrant to put a tracking device on the car.
"Ever since 9/11, the courts have tended to give government
-a pass'" when balancing privacy concerns with law enforcement requests, Andrew
B. Serwin, chair of the privacy, security & information management practice
at law firm Foley & Lardner, told eWEEK. In general, judges are willing to
give local and federal law enforcement some leeway in doing their job, Serwin
U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in
California ruled last year that using a GPS tracker was no different than
physically trailing a suspect in public and that such surveillance was not
protected by the Fourth Amendment so a warrant was unnecessary. The court
protected agents even if they placed the device on a suspect's car which was
parked in his or her own driveway.
In a different case last year, a federal appeals court in
Washington D.C. ruled differently, insisting that collecting data from a GPS
device from a suspect's car amounted to a search and required a warrant. In
this case, it was a drug suspect's Jeep. Even though prosecutors argued that
the device collected information that anyone on the street could obtain by
following the suspect, Judge Douglas Ginsburg disagreed, noting that the GPS
tracker's persistent, nonstop surveillance was different from physically
tracking a suspect.
"Unlike one's movements during a single journey, the whole
of one's movement over the course of a month is not actually exposed to the
public because the likelihood anyone will observe all those movements is
effectively nil,"Ginsburg wrote.