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The Supreme Court Mediates Between Constitutional Rights, Security, and Mechanical Surveillance

Law enforcement is increasingly utilizing man’s best friend: gadgets.

Everything from surveillance cameras to radar guns are common tools in the modern police arsenal.  With the advances in modern technology equipment such as GPS’s, global positioning systems, are increasingly used in the war on crime to track criminal and their transports.  These technological interventions are awakening questions about the legality of using these tools of Big Data for small, potential crimes.  The Supreme Court’s Case of United States v. Jones frames the grand struggle between historic, constitutional rights and security with the modern forces of Big Data and individual’s privacy.

What Is United States v. Jones?

In January 2008 Antione Jones was arrested on the charges of narcotics violations.  Issues arose with the conviction when his lawyer claimed that the police disregarded the Fourth Amendment during the investigation.  The police had used a GPS hidden on Jones’s car to track his movements  The Fourth Amendment protects American citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures or invasions of privacy; police are required to get a warrant for all significant investigations.  There was not a warrant for the GPS.

Were the Police Acting Illegally?

The police are not out of line, the law is just not up to date with the current technology.

There was a precedent for the GPS.  In 1983 the Supreme Court handed down a verdict on United States v. Knotts.  A warrantless radio beeper had been used by the police to track a barrel of chloroform, which was intended to be used for the production of illegal drugs, being transported by Knotts.  The Supreme Court upheld the decision, with the beeper’s evidence, to convict Knotts.  They ruled the police are empowered their abilities to use the latest technology to protect the country.

How is Jones Arguing His Case?

Jones’s case is built on the vast differences between an archaic beeper and a modern GPS.  A beeper plots one journey and had close police supervision.  The modern GPS pinged Jones’s location once every ten minutes for twenty-eight days.  The police obtained 4032 points of reference, but for the majority of the time they are attending to other duties as the data accumulated.

The Supreme Court is concerned that weakening the Fourth Amendment further, by allowing the warrantless use GPS and like technologies, could spell disaster in the Age of Big Data.  This is because GPS location will be common place in every device.  The possibilities for the future are a touch too Orwellian for their tastes; if police are not required to get warrants then every piece of technology could become a people tracker.

What Precisely is Big Data?

Big Data is an umbrella term for analysis and conclusions concerning of massive data sets, these can be everything from secondly GPS pings to every transaction on Wall Street.  Some of the pioneering Big Data studies have already created staggering results; one algorithm derived from Big Data could predict a cell phone user’s positions within a square mile ninety percent of the time.

The possibilities for future applications are endless.

What are the Implications Pertaining To Big Data of United States v. Jones?

If it is ruled that warrants are not needed big data may evolve into a tool of transparent tyranny.  Smart devices will fence in the frontiers of privacy because police and invested third parties will be able to track every step of everybody.  However, corporations and research institutes will more easily be able to use smart devices to explore the new frontier of Big Data and construct world-changing algorithms as fast as possible.

If the Supreme Court rules warrants are needed, which is the morally correct decision, and then our Fourth Amendment rights will be upheld at the expense of world-changing big data.  Invested third parties, searching to profit or learn from the Big Data we all produce, will find it increasingly hard to ascertain the statistics needed to make workable algorithms because the stronger Fourth Amendment will protect smart device users more broadly.   Big Data’s growth will be stunted because analysts simply will not have the data necessary to make quantitative decisions.

The decades of the twenty-first century will be named by the technologies dominating them; 2000-2009 will be the Age of the Internet and 2010-2019 will be the Age of Big Data.  Here, with United States v. Jones, the Supreme Court is adding their personal footnote for the future of America.