Teardown of Covert FBI Car-Tracking Device Reveals GPS, Long Battery Life

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 ThreatLevel reported on May 9. Wired worked with iFixit to take apart the device.

"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 said.

The 9th 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.