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GPS car tracking impedes privacy

By Tara Baukus Mello ·
Saturday, January 28, 2012
Posted: 9 am ET

In today's electronic age of "check-ins" with social media via GPS-enabled cellphones and similar car connectivity via GPS navigation, it may seem as if anyone can track your movements, but the Supreme Court recently ruled that you can't be tracked without your knowledge unless the police get a warrant.

The nine Supreme Court justices recently unanimously agreed that it was a violation of privacy when police attached a GPS tracking device to a suspect's car and tracked his movements for a month, eventually leading to a narcotics bust. The court said in the ruling that the police were both trespassing on the suspect's private property (his car) as well as violating his "reasonable expectation of privacy" by tracking his movements.

The recent ruling may provide some insight into how in-car electronics can be accessed in the future. While the police in this case added a GPS tracking device, many cars today are equipped with navigation systems that are constantly using GPS to track the car's movements.

Similarly, many cars have electronic "black boxes" that record data on the car, such as its speed and the operation of systems linked to the car's electronics, which can include acceleration, deceleration and steering inputs.  In some cases, these devices can reduce auto insurance rates, since they help track a car in the event it is stolen.

Currently the data in these systems is only accessed with the driver's permission, such as a driver using OnStar to summon for help after a crash or to diagnose a malfunction in the car during a car repair, but it is possible for the data to be accessed without the car owner's knowledge.

The results of this ruling seem to indicate an overall discomfort in violating a person's privacy rights even if it does not require physically touching the person's property.

Tara Baukus Mello writes the cars blog as well as the weekly Driving for Dollars column, providing both practical financial advice for consumers as well as insight into the latest developments in the automotive world. Follow her on Facebook here or on Twitter @SheDrives.

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