We’ve discussed before the use of surveillance technology, such as video cameras and GPS trackers, by people to spy on their partners or spouses. USA Today has reported on several cases in which people are using surveillance and spying techniques against spouses in divorce proceedings, including a man in Tennessee whose wife, according to federal records, installed spy software on his computer to intercept and alter his e-mails. In another story, USA Today reported on a divorce case in Ohio concerning a hidden surveillance system installed by a husband to spy on his wife; the system included a camera, microphone and computer-monitoring software. Last year, the Omaha World-Herald reported on a case in Nebraska concerning surreptitious audio surveillance by a woman who had inserted an audio recording device into her daughter’s toy bear to record her ex-husband. Recently, the Wall Street Journal took a look at the surveillance technology that is being used in divorce cases.
Now, Slate reports on the issue of privacy investigators who use GPS tracking and surveillance systems to monitor their targets, such as spouses suspected of cheating, and the legal questions — including privacy issues — that can be raised:
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.
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.
The Slate reporter decided to start an investigation: “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.”
Read the full story to learn how the investigators responded.