GPS Location Privacy
This page provides information about U.S. judicial rulings, legislation, and federal policies concerning GPS and personal privacy. It is not intended to influence or express opinions on any ongoing legal deliberations.
The government's GPS satellites are one-way beacons that cannot track you or anything on the ground. But commercially available GPS devices with communication or recording features can help users keep track of everything from vehicles and cargo to people and animals.
The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution grants Americans certain privacy rights by protecting them from "unreasonable searches and seizures" and by requiring search warrants to be based on "probable cause." Read it
As of July 2014, it remains unclear whether the extended use of GPS technology to track suspects without a warrant violates their Fourth Amendment rights.
In January 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that law enforcement must obtain a warrant before physically attaching a GPS tracking device to a suspect's vehicle. The decision (United States v. Antoine Jones) was based on a narrow application of the Fourth Amendment, since device installation involves physical intrusion on a suspect's vehicle. The Supreme Court did not resolve the broader issue of whether the Fourth Amendment protects geolocation privacy rights.Learn more about the Jones decision
In a separate case decided in June 2014, the Supreme Court ruled that police need a warrant before searching the contents of a suspect's cell phone. The opinion (Riley v. California) specifically discusses the location history stored inside a phone (often collected automatically via GPS) as an example of personal information deserving protection from unwarranted disclosure. View ruling (PDF)
A number of other federal and state courts have ruled on the use of GPS-based vehicle surveillance by law enforcement, both before and after the 2012 Supreme Court decision. However, several of the lower court opinions are in conflict, so the Supreme Court may need to revisit this topic in the future.
Revelant decisions issued after United States v. Jones include:
United States v. Katzin (No. 12-2548)
Oct 2013: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit ruled that law enforcement must have a warrant to use GPS-based vehicle trackers. View ruling (PDF)
Commonwealth v. Rousseau & Dreslinski (SJC-11227, SJC-11228)
June 2013: The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled that vehicle occupants have legal standing under federal and state law to challenge the sufficiency of warrants that authorize GPS-based vehicle surveillance. Look up ruling at massreports.com
United States v. Skinner (No. 09-6497)
Aug 2012: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled that law enforcement did not violate a suspect's Fourth Amendment rights by tracking his movements on public roads in real time using his cell phone's GPS capability after obtaining a federal judge's authority to do so. View ruling (PDF)
United States v. Pineda-Moreno (No. 08-30385)
Aug 2012: The Supreme Court ordered this case to be reconsidered in light of the Jones decision. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reaffirmed its 2010 ruling that installing a GPS tracker on a vehicle parked in the defendant's driveway without a warrant did not violate his Fourth Amendment rights. View ruling (PDF)
Several U.S. states and non-U.S. jurisdictions have enacted laws establishing personal location privacy rights. However, current U.S. statute at the federal level does not provide clear protection of geolocation information.
Members of Congress have proposed legislation to prevent misuse of such information by law enforcement, companies, and individuals. These include the Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance Act ("GPS Act"), the Online Communications and Geolocation Protection Act, and the Location Privacy Protection Act.
As of November 2013, none of these bills has seen action beyond the committee level.Learn more about the bills
Executive branch policies addressing GPS-related privacy issues are mostly decentralized across federal agencies. The following list of known, publicly available policies is a work in progress and not comprehensive.