New Technology, Same Violation of Civil Liberty
Over the past year, the issue of warrantless GPS tracking has become increasingly prominent. In particular, a bipartisan bill – the Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance Act (H.R.2168/S.1212)- was introduced by Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Representative Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) to require the government to get a warrant before tracking an individual’s movement through his or her cell phone, laptop, navigation device, or other forms of mobile technology.
In addition, a case involving the constitutionality of just that was heard earlier this month before the Supreme Court. In this case, the police attached a GPS tracking device to the undercarriage of a suspect’s car, thereby tracking the suspect’s movements for approximately 28 days. The issue in the case primarily surrounds whether the police’s action was a violation of the Fourth Amendment, which protects against unreasonable searches and seizures. To get to the heart of the issue, the Court is debating this question: does an individual have what is legally known as a “reasonable expectation of privacy” when it comes to our movements?
It seems to me that the answer is quite clearly “yes.” Some would argue that by being in public, we lose any “reasonable expectation of privacy.” Yet, while I may get from place to place in public, my origin – and my destination – are rarely apparent simply by looking at me. Whether I am coming from Shabbat services, or going a friend’s house — whether I spend an hour, or only moments, at work or in my home – these are fundamentally very personal aspects of my life, and, as such, they are outside of the realm of legitimate government reach without a warrant.When we consider that tracking an individual’s movements, especially for an extended period of time, reveals the most intimate details of his or her life, we see that the issue is not one of whether we have an expectation of privacy while we walk from place to place. Rather, it is a question of whether we have a right to keep our daily routines, our memberships, and our relationships as private as we would like.
As Reform Jews, this question is easily settled by a long tradition of respect for an individual’s privacy. The Talmud observes that there is “harm caused by seeing” when an individual’s privacy is violated. Rabbi Akiva even suggested that one should knock before entering one’s own home, in the case that another family member requires privacy (Talmud Bavli, Pesahim 112a). Our teachings condemn eavesdropping, going so far as to prohibit seeking out the secrets of others, lest we violate the principle.
As we enter a new age of technology, these fundamental principles remain unchanged: A new method of eavesdropping or intruding into the lives of others does not change its nature. In our comings and our goings, revealing, as they do, the most intimate details of our lives, we should be free from undue and constant observation. Regardless of how new the method, such intrusions are still violations of our basic civil liberties and in our Jewish tradition.
Photo courtesy of the U.S. Supreme Court.