Personal spy gear: Is it ethical? Is it legal?

By Todd R. Weiss, Computerworld |  Security

Scott Burns, the executive director of the National District Attorneys Association in Alexandria, Va., said new kinds of personal technology devices are sprouting so quickly that they're creating new challenges for state and federal courts.

"As a broad observation, I would say that the courts have not kept up with the technology and in many states the laws have not kept up with the technology," said Burns, who served as a district attorney for 16 years in Iron County, Utah, and as director of the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy for seven years. "I predict that we will see more litigation and legislation regarding the technology."

What that means, he said, is that there is still much interpretation to be developed about these kinds of equipment, how they are used and whom they are used by. "In my conversations with DAs and law enforcement officials across the country, each case would be analyzed on the specific facts, the equipment used and the relationships between the parties," Burns said. Much depends on whether there was consent for the use of the devices and if they were used in a home, business or public place, he said, and added that it's probably reasonable for someone to use such devices inside a property that they own, without the consent of others.

"I don't know if anyone would have a great case against you if you were putting a tracking device on your eight-year-old to be sure they were safely getting home from school," Burns said, but it wouldn't likely be legitimate if you did the same thing to one of their friends. "It's probably not a problem putting a GPS tracker in a vehicle that you own, even if it's used by a spouse or your child. But you may have a [legal] problem putting a tracking device on the vehicle of someone else," such as a boyfriend of girlfriend.

"A lot of that is premised on the underlying Fourth Amendment protection" of the U.S. Constitution, which provides a reasonable expectation of privacy, Burns said.

So how do you know when you're using security technology in an appropriate way?

"I am reminded of the U.S. Supreme Court justice [Potter Stewart] who once said that he didn't know how to define pornography, but he knew it when he saw it," Burns said. It's similar with personal security technology devices today, he added. "With respect to the use of this technology in the private sector, there are times when it is appropriate with family members. But there are times when it clearly crosses the line."

Todd R. Weiss is an award-winning technology journalist who wrote for Computerworld.com from 2000 through 2008. He's now a freelance writer, covering technology news, cool tech gear, open source and more. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/TechManTalking.

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