Blog Post

The Supreme Court, GPS, Google, and the Right to Privacy

 

I'm going to interrupt my regularly-scheduled biological literary critical programming with a comment on the recent Supreme Court decision United States v. Jones (565 U.S. [2012]). For those of you who may have missed the news, the Supreme Court recently ruled that Antoine Jones, the owner of a Washington, D.C. nightclub and suspected drug trafficker, had his Fourth Amendment rights violated when the police attached a GPS tracking device to his car without a proper warrant and used the information to convict him of "conspiring to sell cocaine."

The crux of the Court's argument (PDF) was the Fourth Amendment's protection against unreasonable search and seizure. "We hold that the Government's installation of a GPS device on a target's vehicle, and its use of that device to monitor the vehicle's movements, constitutes a 'search,'" wrote Justice Antonin Scalia, building on earlier rulings (1967-1969) that warrantless wiretapping or bugging of individuals' homes was unconstitutional despite the fact that the homeowners' "conversational privacy" was not being explicitly invaded.

I can't help but wonder what this means for the perceived right to privacy and data collection in the digital age. Recently, Google announced that it would be revising its privacy policy across all of its products, prompting a Congressional inquiry into its data collection practices. Earlier today, Google responded to Congress, arguing that it wasn't changing how data was being collected, but was merely trying to "mak[e] things simpler" and be more "upfront" about its practices.

Congress, however, has responded by arguing that consumers should be able to opt out of data collection entirely. This, somewhat astonishingly, has brought the House together across the aisle, with Representatives Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) and Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) arguing jointly that "consumers should have the ability to opt out of data collection when they are not comfortable with a company's terms of service."

This new governmental emphasis on the rights of individuals to control the ways in which external entities collect and use data about them is striking in the wake of the tabling of SOPA and PIPA. Might both the Court and the House be hearing and responding to a heightened desire for privacy despite the conveniences of digital life? Or is privacy truly a Constitutionally-guaranteed right, at all levels of social interaction?

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