The tools once reserved for intelligence operatives have become increasingly cheap and available in recent years, and perhaps no one has benefited from this more than private investigators who make their money by monitoring suspected cheaters. No longer do they have to sit outside a seedy motel for hours, trying to take pictures of a philandering husband and his mistress entering a room together. They need only attach a GPS device to the suspected adulterer’s car, and the client’s suspicions can be confirmed.
Ryan Gallagher is a journalist who reports from the intersection of surveillance, national security, and privacy for Slate's Future Tense blog. He is also a Future Tense fellow at the New America Foundation.
In a landmark ruling in January, the Supreme Court held that law enforcement use of GPS trackers to monitor movements constitutes a “search.” That means the technology falls under the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable searches and seizures, making it difficult for police to put a tracker on a car without first obtaining a warrant. But for private individuals, laws around the use of GPS trackers remain patchy, differing state to state.
Take California, Texas, Virginia, and Minnesota. These states allow private individuals to use tracking devices where the owner of a vehicle consents to it being monitored. Where there is no consent, it is considered a misdemeanor that can result in a fine and a jail sentence of six to 12 months. If a vehicle is jointly owned—say, by a husband and wife—and one owner wants to secretly track the other, it’s a murky area that’s as ethically dubious as it is legally contentious. However, that isn’t stopping private investigators—some of whom appear willing to track any vehicle regardless of its ownership.
In a bid to find out whether private eyes are adhering to the law, earlier this month I decided to dabble in a bit of undercover investigating of my own. Posing as a suspicious wife and using a fake email address, I wrote to a number of PIs in the states with the strictest laws on the use of GPS surveillance trackers. Those I randomly selected were all advertising a GPS service openly on their websites, and I emailed to request a quote for how much it would cost to “GPS monitor movements of my husband's car” over a two-week period.
Of the 20 investigators I contacted, 16 replied, and only one declined to offer me some sort of GPS tracking citing legal concerns. The majority of the PIs said they would do it on the condition that my name was on the title of the car, with some offering to provide a DVD of its movements and others offering “real-time” surveillance of the vehicle for me to watch live via cellphone or computer.
Two separate investigators in California I approached expressed no immediate concern for the state’s GPS tracking law, which unequivocally outlaws tracking a car without the consent of its owner. Still using the fake name and email address, I asked whether the investigators would be willing and able to monitor more than one vehicle at a time. “There is another person who I believe is involved with my husband and it would be useful for me to check her car's movements at the same time as my husband's,” I wrote.
The response from Irvine, Calif.-based Hudson Investigations was a straight yes. “I could do it for $1200 including install and removal,” company boss Rick Hudson, a former Orange County police officer, told me. I received a similarly affirmative answer from Western Investigations, a firm headquartered near San Diego that claims on its website to be one of the most experienced PI agencies in California. “You are looking at a total of $1,800 for 2 vehicles for 2 weeks of the tracking,” Western Investigations’ general manager wrote. “We will give you access to monitor it yourself during the entire course of the investigation. And if you would like a location history report at the conclusion of the investigation, we can do so as well.”
When I subsequently contacted Western Investigations under my real name about this story, I asked whether it was aware the service I requested is classified as a misdemeanor under California’s penal code. “If I gave you the wrong impression then I was mistaken,” the GM wrote back in an email, insisting that the company would not install a tracking device without the consent of the registered owner. Western Investigations’ owner Patrick Schneemann then told me in a separate message, “I can assure you that our company policy is that we do not use GPS in our investigations unless we have consent from the owner of the vehicle.”
Rick Hudson at Hudson Investigations said he was sure he had mentioned the legal constraints in his emails (he didn’t) and said that he wouldn’t put a tracker on any vehicle without signing a GPS agreement with the customer that says that they have the authorization. Hudson added that he gets “so many calls regarding these tracking units that it's crazy.”
Other PI companies were reluctant to directly help me track the vehicles but instead offered to sell or rent me GPS tracking equipment. This would mean any unlawful use of the tracker would be on my shoulders and not those of a PI. In one instance, even after I informed Texas-based LP Dynamics that I was looking to track two vehicles, one of which had no ownership connection to me, I was offered "2 passive GPS units" for $125 each. A company representative emailed: "Just place on a vehicle, remove when you want and download to your computer to see where they have been." When I later contacted the company for this story, CEO Michael Morrison emailed that "we are a licensed private investigation corporation and not an attorney." Morrison rightly stated that LP Dynamics follows Texas law "to the letter" because the penal code covers only the installation of tracking systems but not the sale of the devices. This could be considered something of a legal loophole.
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.
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.
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.