GPS Tracking Laws

Updated July 19, 2017

Modern surveillance techniques have their value. Many criminals are brought to justice by video, audio and GPS tracking. But, when these tools are used by citizens to track other citizens, laws can be broken. State and federal courts are scrambling to address GPS tracking laws because technology is developing faster than the laws to safeguard the public. People considering the use of a GPS to track their wayward spouse or keep tabs on their teenage drivers could find themselves in court.

Definition and History of GPS

GPS, or Global Positioning System, was invented by the Pentagon and was used to track military vehicles throughout the world. Since its birth in 1973, GPS has grown to include commercial and scientific applications as well as personal navigation. The tool is used by police departments to track criminal activity, sports enthusiasts on hiking and boating adventures, the average citizen looking for directions and even meteorologists tracking the weather.

How it Works

GPS consists of three key elements: the satellites, the ground station and the data centres. According to NASA, there are 24 satellites making constant, 12-hour treks around the Earth. Each group of satellites has a specific path, ensuring coverage of the entire planet. The satellites transmit radio signals to a ground station on the Earth's surface made up of a receiver and antenna. To complete the transmission, the ground station sends data to the data centres where it is "decoded" providing a positional reading consisting of latitude, longitude and height.

Eavesdropping, Trespassing and the Fourth Amendment

Shouldn't tracking someone's every move be against the law? The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits unreasonable search and seizure without probable cause and a warrant. This argument is used in case law to argue against the use of surveillance devices. Though wiretapping and video surveillance have produced extensive federal case law, GPS tracking is fairly new to the federal courts. Case precedence dictates surveillance is allowed as long as it doesn't involve physical trespass and is preceded by probable cause and, in most cases, a warrant.

Common Law

Individuals who believe their privacy rights have been violated will usually find more sympathy in state court than the federal courts. State and local case law reveals courts are quick to defend privacy using tort law. States including New York, Washington and Oregon have rendered verdicts indicating GPS tracking without a warrant is an absolute violation of privacy.

Legal and Illegal Tracking

GPS tracking is allowable for valid reasons and is primarily reserved for law enforcement surveying criminal activity. However, states do allow GPS tracking by companies and citizens in certain situations. For example, many states will allow companies to track employees in company vehicles during work hours, especially in the transportation industry. New to the argument is a parent's right to track their teen drivers and the use of GPS to monitor child care providers transporting their client's children. Again, state privacy statutes will normally govern these activities.

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About the Author

Teri Workman is a freelance writer and non-profit organizer. She spent 20 years in the business world and began non-profit work 10 years ago. She began writing full time in 2008 for such sites as eHow, COD and ConnectEd. Trained in business and legal writing, her expertise is research and short, informative articles.