Wednesday, February 23, 2011

"Location Privacy: Is Privacy in Public a Contradiction in Terms?"

This entry by Robert Gellman on the GeoData Policy blog (Feb. 21, 2011) is an intelligent, but far from exhaustive, discussion of issues related to privacy in public places and changing technologies. I learned a number of things from it; the one that surprised me the most was Gellman's summary of a Supreme Court finding.
In United States v. Knotts, a 1983 Supreme Court decision, the police surreptitiously attached an electronic beeper to an item purchased by a suspect. They used the beeper to track the movements of the suspect’s car. The Court held that a person traveling in a car on public streets has no reasonable expectation of privacy in his movements. The Court didn’t care if the police watched or used technology. It found no Fourth Amendment violation either way.
I hadn't known about this decision, and it gave me food for thought. Gellman doesn't say whether the police had a warrant; if they did, the decision is in line with my understanding of police procedures. If they didn't, the decision strikes me as a serious escalation of police powers and degradation of civil rights. Furthermore, since the beeper was attached to an "item" and not to the car, it could have been used to track the suspect in relatively private spaces.

I found this a worthwhile read; you might also. Thanks to Francis Harvey for bringing it to my attention.

Ken Pimple, PAIT Project Director

1 comment:

LMLee said...

Thanks, Ken, for pointing us to this read. This to the fore a critical point not only for location privacy, but also for health and other information privacy...which is that there really is no such thing. It is not whether the information is available (it is!)-- whether it should be is a whole other story-- rather what restrictions must be placed on the USE of these data. It should not be legal to violate someone's privacy simply because one can. It most certainly is not ethical to do so.