How Many GPS Trackers Is The FBI Actually Using?

Forbes.com on March 27, 2012 released the following:

“Kashmir Hill, Forbes Staff

After the Supreme Court ruled in U.S. v. Jones that the government needs to get warrants to put GPS trackers on citizens’ cars, law enforcement and government agencies across the country had to scramble to ensure that any trackers they had in the wild were ‘warranted.’ The WSJ reported earlier this year that the FBI had to turn off 3,000 trackers after the Supreme Court ruling. A more recent article from NPR, though, has a slightly different version of events. FBI officials tell NPR that they had “about” 3,000 trackers in the field, and permanently shut down fewer than 10% of them:

“Government lawyers scrambled to get search warrants for weeks before the decision, working to convince judges they had probable cause to believe crimes were taking place. But after the ruling, FBI officials tell NPR, agents still had to turn off 250 devices that they couldn’t turn back on.”

So what are the actual numbers here? According to an FBI spokesperson, the Bureau doesn’t exactly know either. A spokesman says the 3,000 number referred to the “universe of trackers” — and may reflect the total used over a given year, or the total in use at any one time, or someone’s dartboard score. “It’s an oversimplification,” said an FBI spokesperson.

To rectify the problem of a number that seems to have forced itself into the conversation like an uninvited dinner guest, the FBI has asked its 56 field offices to report back on how many GPS trackers are currently in use, how many already had warrants prior to the Supreme Court’s January ruling, how many had to be shut down, and how many were brought into compliance. “Hopefully, we’ll have that by the end of the week,” says a spokesperson. *Fingers crossed*

As to the total number of trackers used by other government agencies and state and local law enforcement (not to mention private investigators and suspicious spouses), that’s anyone’s guess — or someone’s very diligent FOIA-ing.

“The problem is there’s no national database,” says Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association. “I can say, anecdotally, that across the country, prosecutors now have to meet with law enforcement to prepare affidavits and warrants when they want to use a tracker.”

Given that delay, Burns suggest some police are being forced to return to “old school surveillance tactics,” i.e. tailing a suspect’s car French Connection-style instead of digitally.

Of course, given that we all carry around our own personal digital trackers these days in the form of cell and smartphones, privacy and civil liberties advocates are already moving on to the next big location legal question: should the government need a warrant to get access to the whereabouts of your phone (and thus you)? One judge in Maryland recently ruled “No!” Meanwhile, a case in which a judge said “Yes!” has made its way to a federal appeals court. The government argues that once a person reveals their location to their phone company, they lose 4th Amendment protections over that information (thanks to the “third party doctrine”), meaning no warrant is needed. We’ll see what the Fifth Circuit thinks of that. Should the issue make its way to the Supreme Court, we already know that Justice Sonia Sotomayor has problems with that line of reasoning.”

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Douglas McNabb – McNabb Associates, P.C.’s
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