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.

How GPS Works

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 use of GPS technology to covertly monitor suspects, employees, customers, and other people raises questions about individual privacy rights. Several lawsuits and legislative actions have sought to address these questions, but much remains unresolved today.

Judicial Rulings

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." View text

As of October 2014, it remains unclear whether the extended use of GPS technology to track suspects without a warrant violates their Fourth Amendment rights.

Supreme Court

Statue of Justice outside Supreme Court building 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 PDF

Lower Courts

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:

View lower court opinions issued prior to 2012

Congressional Legislation

Capitol dome 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 October 2014, none of these bills has been enacted into law.

Learn more about the bills

Federal Policies

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.

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