Advancing Technology, Decreasing Privacy, and NYC’s GPS Tracking of Taxi Drivers

September 17, 2016

burnick-imageAs 21st century technology continues to rapidly develop, so does the American peoples’ interest in maintaining their privacy.  As a nation, we value the protection and privacy afforded to us by the Fourth Amendment, allowing us to feel as if some portions of our daily lives are free from governmental intrusion.  However, new advances in technology have posed a challenge for the courts as they are forced to try and apply the words of the Fourth Amendment to new issues; likely ones that the Framers never could have imagined.  More specifically, there has been widespread concern in regards to the growing reach of tracking technology, such as GPS (Global Positioning System) devices.  This device is no longer being used for just simple directions from Point A to Point B, but is now dually operating as a means to monitor everybody from public school students, truckers, trash collectors, and now, cab drivers.
The dispute began back in 2004 when the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission began requiring all NYC taxicabs to start using a taxicab technology system, or TTS.  The physical device was installed in the backseat of taxicabs, and among other things, would provide credit and debit card payment services and would further collect electronic data about trip routes, trip times, and fees by means of GPS monitoring.  In 2010, the taxi commission announced that almost 22,000 drivers had “illegally overcharged at least one passenger” by setting their meters to charge out-of-city rates while still in the city.  The drivers who were aware that the technology was installed in their vehicle lost their taxi license or were required to pay fines.
This brings into focus a suit filed in 2013 by a veteran driver, Hassan El-Nahal, who was one of the NYC taxi drivers accused of overcharging passengers based on data collected from his GPS device. El-Nahal alleged in his suit that the installation of these tracking devices constituted an unlawful search under the Fourth Amendment.  However, in January of 2014, a U.S. District Court Judge ruled the use of the GPS-collected data did not constitute a search within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment; and even if it did constitute a search, it was a reasonable one that society was willing to recognize as lawful.
Displeased with this result, El-Nahal asked the appeals court to reconsider its ruling, arguing the decision “would allow wholesale constitutional violations.”   Nevertheless, on August 26, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals held that the New York mandate, requiring all taxicabs be equipped with GPS tracking devices, does not violate the Fourth Amendment’s bar on unreasonable searches and seizures.
A split three-judge panel ruled that, pursuant to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2012 United States v. Jones standard, El-Nahal had no reasonable expectation of privacy concerning the data collected from the GPS device installed in his taxi.  In Jones, the Court held that the installation of a GPS tracking device to the defendant’s car, while in his possession, was a physical intrusion upon his property that constituted a Fourth Amendment “search”. The Court distinguished the current case by finding that El-Nahal had no ownership interest in the cab at the time of GPS installment, and therefore could not argue the government had improperly intruded on his property in a manner equivalent to a Fourth Amendment “search”.  For the general public, this could be bad news.  This allows for the potential that the government will take vehicles or other such items and install tracking before people retain possession.
In rejecting the panel’s reasoning, El-Nahal and his attorney, Daniel Ackman, warn that this ruling may set a potentially dangerous precedent impacting all drivers.

“The decision establishes a potentially dangerous precedent – it could allow the government to require car manufacturers to install GPS devices in all cars to track individual drivers,” Ackman said.  “They’d have no Fourth Amendment claim because they did not own the car when the device was installed.”

This ruling could make it impossible for future victims of GPS tracking technology to bring a Fourth Amendment claim if they did not own the car when the device was installed.  While the GPS tracking technology provides a means of convenience and security for employees and customers of the TLC, the ruling could potentially be applied very broadly, and begin to infringe on the Fourth Amendment rights of every-day car buyers.  So, how far is society willing to go in order to maintain their privacy?  Would people be okay with buying a car that possibly has pre-installed GPS tracking included, based on the scope of this case? Where is the line drawn?  These are questions to think about.