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Courts divided on police use of GPS tracking

Two recent, divergent court rulings on warrantless tracking suggest new technologies are straining old privacy standards.

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If a police officer puts a GPS tracking device on your car, should he or she have to get a warrant first?

It's a simple question, but one, so far, without a clear legal answer. In an example of how unsettled the issue is, in just the past week, appeals courts in two different states delivered completely opposite rulings.

At the heart of the matter is whether tracking someone with a global-positioning system device constitutes a search, which is covered by the Fourth Amendment of the US Constitution. A Wisconsin court of appeals ruled last week that no, it doesn't. On Tuesday, the New York Court of Appeals ruled that yes, it does.

"It brings us back to the fundamental question as to whether GPS tracking is synonymous with visual surveillance," says Hillary Farber, a professor of law and criminal justice at Northeastern University's College of Criminal Justice in Boston. "This is an evolving area of law.... It's a hot issue."

The difference of legal opinion highlights the shifting expectation of privacy in a world where cameras are everywhere and travelers know they may be viewed naked at the security screening in the airport, as well as the difficulty courts have in weighing in on rapid advances in technology.

The decisions come at a time when an increasing number of police departments are using GPS in their investigations.

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