Legislating Privacy After US v Jones

Legislating Privacy after U.S. v. Jones: Can Congress Limit Government Use of New Surveillance Technologies?

The Supreme Court’s decision in U.S. v. Jones, a case that addressed the use of global positioning system (GPS) tracking devices for law enforcement purposes, is hot privacy news. Almost immediately, the decision sparked numerous and sometimes conflicting comments. The issue here is whether the decision will prompt Congress to consider legislation and what that legislation might look like.

The majority opinion by Justice Antonin Scalia used a property-based approach to conclude that attaching a GPS device to a car and using the GPS to monitor the car’s movements on public streets constitutes a search or seizure within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. The narrow basis for the decision turned on the fact that the government physically occupied private property (the car) for the purpose of obtaining information.

A concurring opinion by Justice Samuel Alito and joined by three of his colleagues reached the same outcome, but Alito wanted to determine whether the car owner’s reasonable expectations of privacy were violated by the long-term monitoring of his car. Essentially, Alito thought that the majority’s property analysis was not scalable to present day surveillance issues and that an expectation of privacy standard would reach the same result without the baggage of the property-based approach.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor joined the majority opinion, but she also filed a concurring opinion. She observed that physical intrusion is not always necessary for surveillance (e.g., by tracking a cell phone) and argued that how surveillance is done may affect an expectation of privacy. So in her opinion Sotomayor asked whether people reasonably expect that their movements will be recorded in a manner that allows the government to ascertain their political and religious beliefs, sexual habits, and more. She even questioned the premise that an individual has no reasonable expectation of privacy in information voluntarily disclosed to third parties. That was the holding in United States v. Miller, 425 U. S. 435, 443 (1976), a case increasingly criticized by privacy advocates as inconsistent with life today.

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