GPS trackers are among the hottest topics in ethics discussions today. At least, that is my impression after a series of ethics lectures I’ve given around the country based on my book, The Art of Fact Investigation.

Map pin flat above city scape and network connection concept

We wrote three years ago about the need for caution before using one of these devices on someone else’s car, here.

They are powerful devices that gather up a ton of information that it would take thousands of dollars and round-the-clock surveillance to duplicate. Today, the trackers are probably among the fastest-changing areas of privacy law, and for good reason.

We know it’s illegal to get someone’s cell phone records, though many people still offer this service. (It’s still illegal. If they offered you drugs or contraband, would you buy it anyway?) Banking and medical records, similarly, are off-limits without the other person’s consent or a court order. Yet, in many states it was only recently that placing a GPS tracker on someone else’s vehicle was not seen as an invasion of privacy.

Times are changing fast. In 2011, the Supreme Court held in U.S. v. Jones that placement by the government of a GPS tracker on anyone’s car amounted to a Fourth Amendment Search that required a warrant. The court split over the reasoning, but gradually the concurrence by Justice Alito (joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer and Kagan) seems to be taking hold. They concurred that GPS trackers by the government need court supervision, but not because this amounted to trespassing but because people have a reasonable expectation of privacy that their every movement won’t be monitored that easily.

The Jones case didn’t address the issue of private parties slapping these devices on the vehicles of others, but the states seem to be following suit with respect to the “reasonable expectation” theory.

Among the milder restrictions is New York’s, which  added GPS trackers to its anti-stalking law. If you tell your estranged husband to leave any trackers off your car, he’s got to abide by that or face misdemeanor charges. As his lawyer who ratifies that illegal conduct, you could be up on before an ethics panel.

California and Texas have gone further: you just can’t put these trackers on someone else’s car – period.

In my view, that’s the way the rest of the states are probably going. Laws that restrict the placement of trackers to those that don’t drain the car’s battery miss the privacy point and people just won’t put up with this forever.

So, to be safe, put these trackers on a car only if the person authorizing the placement is the owner of the vehicle.

There are plenty of workable alternatives to using GPS trackers. Not as cheap, not as comprehensive, but still legal. We will go over some of those in the next posting.