Law enforcement technologySupreme Court to rule on age of "Big Brother" surveillance

Published 13 September 2011

This November the Supreme Court is gearing up to hear a landmark case which will decide how far law enforcement agencies can pry into an individual’s private life; federal judges argue that the use of GPS surveillance by law enforcement is an “Orwellian intrusion” into private life and violate the Fourth Amendment; meanwhile police say GPS tracking is simply a more efficient way to tail a suspect’s car or track their movements, things they can currently do without a warrant

Supreme Court to review warrantless GPS tracking // Source:

This November the Supreme Court is gearing up to hear a landmark case which will decide how far law enforcement agencies can pry into an individual’s private life.

In recent years GPS enabled phones and devices have proven to be a treasure trove of personal data, beaming constant round the clock updates on an individual’s activity. With the increasing ubiquity of these devices, their legality has become the center of a hot debate that has divided the nation’s lower courts. In several recent rulings, judges have called the devices “Orwellian” or Big Brother-esque and worried that they violate the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable search and seizure.

For instance in April, Judge Diane P. Wood of the federal appeals court in Chicago wrote that using GPS surveillance would “make the system that George Orwell depicted in his famous novel, ‘1984,’ seem clumsy.”

More recently, Judge Nicholas G. Garaufis of the Federal District Court in Brooklyn refused a government request for 113 days’ worth of location data from cell phone towers. Garaufis called the request an “Orwellian intrusion” and that courts must first “begin to address whether revolutionary changes in technology require changes to existing Fourth Amendment doctrine.”

In United States v. Jones, which the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear in November, the nation’s top judges will address whether law enforcement officials are legally able to attach a GPS device to a suspect’s car and track their movements for weeks at a time.

More broadly, the Supreme Court’s decision will ultimately decide the limits of the Fourth Amendment in a technological age populated with devices that continuously record an individual’s location whether it is in with a cell phone, toll plaza, or transit system.

“The Jones case requires the Supreme Court to decide whether modern technology has turned law enforcement into Big Brother, able to monitor and record every move we make outside our homes,” said Susan Freiwald, a law professor at the University of San Francisco.

Echoing Frewald’s sentiments, Magistrate Judge James Orenstein of the Federal District Court in Brooklyn wrote in an opinion last year, “Technology has progressed to the point where a person who wishes to partake in the social, cultural, and political affairs of our society has no realistic choice but to expose to others, if not to the public as a whole, a broad range of conduct and communications that would previously have been deemed unquestionably private.”

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