Covert Tracking Issue Goes to Supreme Court

By Fahmida Y. Rashid  |  Posted 2011-05-11 Print this article Print

  The Obama Administration called the federal appeals court ruling "vague and unworkable" and filed a writ last month to take the case to the United States Supreme Court. The Court hasn't decided yet whether or not to hear the case.

The key question here is how the courts view stored information, Serwin said. Past court rulings have held that data stored on hosted services, even if it's not shared with anyone, is not protected because there's a "lessened expectation of privacy," according to Serwin. The same goes for hardware devices. There was a case earlier in the year where the California Supreme Court ruled that police do not need warrants to look at text messages stored on the suspect's cell phone.

The GPS tracker Thomas handed over for iFixit analysis is very similar to the one Yasir Afifi found underneath his car in October 2010, according to Wired. Afifi, an Arab-American college student in Santa Clara, Calif., filed a lawsuit in March alleging that the FBI violated his privacy rights by placing a GPS device on his car without a warrant. Afifi found the unknown unit on the bottom of his car and a friend posted the photo on to try to identify it. Two FBI officials showed up to reclaim the "expensive" device, he told Wired's ThreatLevel.

After taking the transponder unit apart, iFixit's team found it contained a GPS unit for receiving the car's position, an RF transmitter for relaying the location to the FBI, and a battery pack with four lithium-thionyl chloride D cell batteries, that can probably last as long as 20 years.

"The FBI really did not want anyone tampering with the innards of their tracking device," the iFixit team wrote, noting that the screws were coated with so much threadlocker that they had to use a power drill to remove the screw heads.

According to Wired, the Justice Department and local law enforcement agencies are not required to compile or disclose statistics about how the trackers are being used. The Department of Justice regularly reports to Congress on the national security letters issued to ISPs and other businesses for customer records.

iFixit rated the device a -10 on its Repairability Score, where 10 is the easiest to repair. "The FBI will find you if you find their tracking device. You cannot choose to be not tracked by the FBI. You can legally be tracked by one of these units," the group wrote.


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