Right in the middle of the controversy over whether easily concealable GPS devices let federal law enforcement agencies negate the Fourth Amendment at the discretion of individual agents, the tech press has stepped up to show you what the police or FBI would like you to carry for it, and how to hack the thing if you find one.
In mid-April the D.C. Court of Appeals ruled that police aren't allowed to put a GPS in your car to track your movements without either telling you or getting a warrant.
Pesky, I know, but pretty clearly covered by the don't-illegally-search-and-seize portion of the Fourth Amendment, though the TSA apparently gets a pass on the part that requires probable cause before security staffs can grope around to discover whether there's something dangerous in your pocket or if you're just happy to be there.
The Justice Dept. asked the Supreme Court to reconsider the case, which it contends would make it illegal for a police car to cruise behind your car for too long – even by coincidence -- lest it be thought to be following you.
Appeals Court Judge Douglas Ginsberg certainly doesn't hold it. Following someone persistently – especially when you do it using a planted bug so you can see their whereabouts all the time is not at all the same as just cruising in close proximity to someone, or even to following them purposely for a day or two.
"It is one thing for a passerby to observe or even follow someone during a single journey," Ginsburg wrote in his decision."It is another thing for a stranger to [dog] his prey until he has identified all the places, people, amusements, and chores that make up that person‘s hitherto private routine."
The Obama administration also asked the court to look at the question, not because it's for or against GPS tracking, apparently, but because the decision as it stands is too vague.
U.S.-born college student Yasir Afifi is suing the FBI for putting a GPS on his car to track him because some investigators were suspicious about his ethnic and political background.
He discovered the device in 2005, when the economy was good mainly because the Global War on Terror had extended the need for highly focused surveillance operations that half the people in U.S. were being paid by the FBI to spy on the other half.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) filed a civil-rights lawsuit against the FBI on Afifi's behalf.
Fortunately, many citizens were up to no good, but the vast bulk were just incredibly boring and all but a very few of the rest were up to no good in a way that wouldn't terrorize anyone. Not anyone who mattered to the people allowing the surveillance, anyway.
The GPS tracking mechanisms are custom made, but look in general like inch-thick, foot-long metal cylinders.
They're often easy to find, if you're looking.
“I think I must have found it right after they put it on, because there was no grime on it at all,” an animal-rights activist told Wired.com.
It's not the most interesting thing Wired has ever dismantled and posted.
Again from Wired is a list of the most common types of covert GPS, though it didn't mention the iPhone or iPad or (only a little more relevantly) de facto malware law enforcement might try to install on a smartphone, or device it might use to extract data from one.
PCWorld's iFixIt also disassembled one of the systems, concluding the device, which includes a battery pack , magnetic mount and gps transmitter/receiver unit , is simple because more complex devises would be too easy to find.
Street criminals and panicky victims of attempted traffic stop started complaining a decade ago that having a police helicopters overhead made it almost impossible to get away during a high speed chase.
Covert GPS tracking has the same drawback for skulkers but has the added advantage of violating the criminal's right not to be treated like a criminal before being proven to be one.
Like the iPhone's covert location tracking, Flash-cookie activity monitoring, almost everything Google does, and a dozen other efforts by IT vendors and their customers to get as much previously private data on end users as they can, GPS tracking is an invasion of privacy government or private agencies should have to ask permission to commit.
If you choose to be watched, fine. If not, you should be able to know when your iPhone isn't tracing your movements and the end result of an open policy of warrantless GPS tracking is to set a precedent that no matter what the drawbacks to either the individual or civil rights as a whole,