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Police Turn to Secret Weapon: GPS Device

Without obtaining a warrant, Jack Kirk, a detective from the Fairfax police department's electronic-surveillance section, placed a GPS device on Foltz's van while it was parked in front of his house, Kirk testified. He said it took three seconds. Another vehicle was not targeted because it was on private property, he said.

Detectives began actively monitoring the van four days later, when it appeared to be moving slowly through neighborhoods, Kirk said. Foltz was caught the next day.

In preparing to defend Foltz, Leibig filed Freedom of Information Act requests with every police department in Virginia, asking about their use of unwarranted GPS tracking. Most departments said they had never used the device. About two dozen refused to respond, including Loudoun and Prince William counties, Alexandria and the Virginia State Police.

Arlington police said they have used GPS devices 70 times in the last three years, mostly to catch car thieves, but also in homicide, robbery and narcotics investigations.

Fairfax police used the technology as early as 2003 and have used it many times since, according to year-end reports Leibig received. Police used GPS devices 61 times in 2005, 52 times in 2006 and 46 times in 2007.

Five other Virginia departments reported using GPS once for specific investigations.

GPS advocates said police do not need a warrant to track suspects electronically on public streets because the device provides the same information as physical tracking.

"A police officer could do the same thing with his or her own eyes," said Arlington Commonwealth's Attorney Richard E. Trodden. "It helps to cut down on the number of police officers who would have to be out tracking particular cars."

Leibig said GPS should be held to a different standard because it provides greater detail. "While it may be true that police can conduct surveillance of people on a public street without violating their rights, tracking a person everywhere they go and keeping a computer record of it for days and days without that person knowing is a completely different type of intrusion," he said.

GPS devices receive signals from a network of satellites, then use the information to calculate their precise location. By taking readings at different times, they can also calculate speed and direction.

The Defense Department operates the system, which was made available for civilian use in 1996. The technology's price has dropped since then, with new dashboard models available for less than $200. Some cellphone models are equipped with GPS, and many companies and local governments rely on GPS to track vehicle fleets.

Barry Steinhardt, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's technology and liberty program, considers GPS monitoring, along with license plate readers, toll transponders and video cameras with face-recognition technology, part of the same trend toward "an always-on, surveillance society."


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