Gone to yesterday is the clumsiness and risk of sneaking and spying. Today, all you have to do is drop a palm sized GPS tracker into someone’s car or bag or even shoe, and voilà! Stalking made easy. No need to hassle with cumbersome civil rights or painstaking trust relationships. With GPS tracking seeping into the mainstream of US culture, guilty before innocent is becoming the name of the game in both civil and social life.
In 1984, no one trusts each other. While it is true that Orwell’s Big Brother does not trust its citizens, a corruption we all feel comfortable loudly denouncing, the suspicion of others goes deeper in the society London has become. Distrust permeates the culture. Parents fear their children’s eventual betrayal, colleagues compete to prove their ferocious loyalty, strangers eye each other anxiously, watching for the thought police among them. Huddled in the only private corner of his apartment, Winston is profoundly alone, for he can lend no one his trust.
Six times the Supreme Court referenced 1984’s dystopian warnings during the oral arguments of the recent GPS tracking case, Jones v. United States. Justice Breyer’s first not-so-rhetorical literary reference is now well known. “So if you win,” he challenged Michael Dreeben, counsel for the government, “you suddenly produce what sounds like 1984.” Collective shivers run down our spines at the proximity of the image. Less frequently repeated is Dreeben’s response in his closing argument. “Today perhaps GPS can be portrayed as a 1984-type invasion, but as people use GPS in their lives and for other purposes, our expectations of privacy surrounding our location may change.” Somehow it’s supposed to comfort us that someday we may have disavowed our privacy to such a degree that government suspicion of our day to day activities seems normal. There is nothing not unsettling about that future world, contrary to Dreeben’s assumption.
Unfortunately, the Court’s ruling in Jones was rather narrow, resting on the fact that the police invaded Jones’s property when they placed the GPS on his car. The lower courts and state legislatures now have almost no direction in determining the legality of tracking. Earlier this month, Virginia’s General Assembly passed a bill allowing police to gain warrants for tracking vehicles and requiring tracking records to be disclosed only in the case of arrest. In other words, your car could be tracked for an indefinite amount of time in Virginia and you may never know. In a legal brief [pdf] filed last month, the US Department of Justice claims that by signing a cell phone contract with a company, a person discloses their data to the company thereby inherently disavowing any claim to data privacy. According to what cryptic, corrupt argumentation could the government possibly understand a private contract with a cell phone company to be license for detailed governmental stalking?
It’s not just the government negating principles of privacy and trust in its quest to thrust itself into our dirt. As we denounce the government its trespassing, so are we using GPS tracking to tip toe up to the window pane of those dearest and nearest. Tracking of children, for example, is the most widely condoned and even encouraged snooping in American culture. Beginning with the Sprint Family Locator, all major cell phone companies now offer GPS tracking programs that allow contract administrators to track other phones on the plan. Kidnapping is the great boogeyman that parents use as rationale to enable “peace of mind” through tracking, but that rationale quickly cascades to include knowing when Johnny is home from school and if Susie’s babysitter decides to take her out for ice cream. Using the same boogeyman logic, hospitals now strap infants with electronic transmitter bracelets, beginning the tracking from Day 1. Quick not to appear negligent over safety, schools also track children for a plethora of reasons from worry over children boarding the wrong bus to cuffing truant students with school issued GPS phones. As tracking migrates beyond the young childhood years, the message adults are conveying to teens is that teens are always potentially delinquent and trust can only be lost. That’s not a recipe for healthy and productive adult-teen relationships.
The situations abound in which GPS tracking exploits already insecure relationships. Spouses can creep, employers can snoop…and why not? The justification comes easy since, if they are in the wrong, they had it coming to them. Guilty until proven innocent is, after all, how it works in a democracy, right? Once again, the law is tending towards standing behind the sneaker. Tracking a spouse is legal in many states either because the vehicle is mutually owned or because any public voyeur could track them all the same. The tracking seems moot anyway if the spouse is found cheating. Similar reasoning goes for tracking employees with the added benefit that worker rights are diminishing overall in this employer’s market in which we find ourselves.
While it’s impossible to precisely quantify the extent of GPS tracking, between the millions of GPS tracking apps downloaded and the hundreds of thousands of GPS tracking units sold to private individuals each year, there can be no doubt electronic tracking is becoming more prevalent. And, of course, we can never go back. As technologist Kevin Kelly argues, technology never dies. Once we embrace it, our world is recreated. Once I can track you, why would I stop? It’s just so appealing to be able to know where you always are.
Photo “Big Brother…” by Thomas Leuthard