For all of us, and not only for criminal suspects, the days when being tracked is the exception rather than the rule are drawing to a close. To the extent that our location on January 10, 2014—or, for that matter, on January 10, 2012—remains private, it is not because the records to remove that privacy do not exist, but only because no one cares sufficiently to access them. Inevitably and inexorably, we are building an infrastructure that enables location surveillance decisions to be made retroactively, reducing the need to determine in advance who should be surveilled.
In the future, therefore, the issue of before-the-fact location-tracking warrants will be largely irrelevant. All of the necessary data will be collected automatically. The important privacy questions will instead concern the protections that apply to that data: Who can see it? And under what circumstances?
The government certainly needs the ability to access archived information about the movements of a person credibly believed to be planning, for example, a terrorist attack. But what about juveniles suspected of petty crimes? What types of location data should be available to parents engaged in a child custody battle? Or former business partners embroiled in a legal dispute?
The Supreme Court has not yet addressed these questions. But, inevitably, it will. And the answers, far more than the ruling in United States v. Jones, will help define the meaning of privacy in 21st-century America.
Image by Thomas Hawk on Flickr