The growing police use of new technologies that make surveillance far easier and cheaper is raising difficult questions about the scope of constitutional privacy rights, leading to sharp disagreements among judges, reports the New York Times. Last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit issued a ruling that contradicts precedents from three other appeals courts over whether the police must obtain a warrant before secretly attaching a Global Positioning System device beneath a car.
The issue is whether the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable searches covers a device that records a suspect's movements for weeks or months without any need for an officer to trail him. The GPS dispute coincides with the evolution of technological tools that expand police monitoring abilities – including automated license-plate readers in squad cars, speed cameras mounted on streetlight poles, and even the prospect of linking face-recognition computer programs to the proliferating number of surveillance cameras. Some legal scholars say the escalating use of high-tech techniques for enhancing traditional police activities is eroding the pragmatic considerations that used to limit how far a law-enforcement official could intrude on people's privacy without court oversight. They have called for a fundamental rethinking of how to apply Fourth Amendment privacy rights in the 21st century.