The St. Petersburg Times looks into the use by law enforcers of cell phones, social networking and GPS to investigate criminals. The problem, critics say, is when these technologies are used without oversight – and to erode privacy. A judge on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently called out his fellow judges on both counts. His rebuke came after the court ruled that federal agents could not only plant a GPS tracking device on a vehicle without getting a warrant, but they could go onto private property to do so. “The needs of law enforcement, to which my colleagues seem inclined to refuse nothing, are quickly making personal privacy a distant memory,” Chief Judge Alex Kozinski wrote in a widely read dissent.
The Global Positioning System of satellites in orbit has become ubiquitous in modern life. The private sector uses it to keep tabs on employees. The public uses it to keep from getting lost. Florida uses it to track 2,620 sex offenders. But how often is it used in criminal investigations? None of the Tampa Bay area’s major law enforcement agencies would discuss the issue. Their investigative techniques are exempt from public records law. “We do utilize GPS for investigations, and we do have a policy that addresses the usage,” wrote Hillsborough sheriff’s spokeswoman Debbie Carter in an e-mail. “But we cannot release the policy due to the fact that it reveals investigative techniques.” The Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney’s Office would only confirm that it has obtained judicial approval to track suspects using GPS. Defense attorneys say they’re encountering the technology more frequently. But no one can say for sure how often it’s used.