The Legal Gray Area of Private Investigators Using GPS To Track Cheating Spouses

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Nov. 9 2012 8:33 AM

The Spy Who GPS-Tagged Me

Private investigators who use GPS trackers to monitor suspected cheating spouses are in a legal gray area.

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The solitary exception was California-based Orange Investigations, run by former military policeman Ryan Garrahy. Of the 16 that responded to me, Garrahy was the only PI to completely stonewall my request. Orange Investigations has previously provided GPS tracking for its clients, but Garrahy said he has stopped doing so “at this particular time” because of concerns about a possible rise in civil suits linked to the Supreme Court decision in January.

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Overall, the impression I got was that it was not difficult to find companies willing to help me track any vehicle, which could potentially result in a misdemeanor being committed. Even the investigators who were more cautious, telling me that they would only track a vehicle I had an “ownership interest” in, were on shaky ground. Though a case in Minnesota last year ruled that it was acceptable to use a GPS tracker on your spouse if you co-own the car, there is far from a legal consensus on the matter in other states.

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Austin, Texas-based criminal lawyer Ian Inglis told me he thought that the Texas statute on tracking wasn’t constructed with joint ownership in mind. “Even if there’s no criminal liability, there could be some civil liability, and it might look bad in a divorce, too,” Inglis said. “Whether it’s your husband or wife, it’s a bad idea to track anybody’s car without their permission.”

In California, similarly, it’s a gray area. Hanni Fakhoury, staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said he wasn’t aware of any statutory California law that addressed the joint ownership question. Fakhoury referred to Georgia v. Randolph, a Supreme Court case where it was ruled that there needed to be joint agreement for the lawful search of a jointly owned property. According to Fakhoury, the joint consent deemed necessary in Randolph is consistent with other California law and so could feasibly apply to the use of trackers on a jointly owned vehicle. (Californian wiretap law, for instance, requires both parties to a conversation to consent to having the conversation recorded—unlike federal wiretap law, which only requires one party to consent.)

Contentious legal issues aside, what’s clear is that the use of GPS tracking devices is very far from being under control. While law enforcement agencies are now bound to consider the trackers as covered by the Fourth Amendment, in the private domain there’s a lack of clarity when it comes to the regulation. Where there are laws, in some cases they are being ignored, and where there is any ambiguity, it is being exploited—often by individuals who stand to make a profit.

As is frequently the case in the realm of surveillance, the technology is out of step with the law. High-tech tracking tools that would a decade ago have rarely been used outside police and military circles are available today to anyone with a credit card and access to the Internet. The technology is continuing to advance and is simultaneously becoming cheaper. And that’s not going to change any time soon.

SpyBase, a surveillance gadgets retailer based out of Torrance, Calif., has seen in recent years a rapid increase in sales of GPS trackers, a trend that’s continuing. The store’s owner, who didn’t want to be named, told me GPS trackers were his “best-sellers,” and that a sophisticated $299 real-time tracker called the PTX 5 was his customers’ favorite.

“PIs, police, private citizens,” he said. “It’s a very big market.”

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.