New Jersey judge rules using GPS to track spouse’s location is legal

by Phil Hornshaw

If you’re suspicious about your spouse, it’s not an invasion of privacy to use a GPS device to track their whereabouts, at least in New Jersey.

The story comes from NJ.com, in which an appellate court panel has ruled in the case of a Gloucester County couple that employing GPS technology to track spouses isn’t an invasion of privacy. It’s a tool often employed by private investigators when they’re hired to find out if a spouse is cheating.

In the case, Gloucester County Sheriff’s Officer, Keith Villanova, sued Private Investigator, Richard Leonard, for invasion of privacy for using GPS data in his investigation into Villanova. Leonard was hired by Villanova’s ex-wife in 2007.

Villanova apparently gave Leonard the slip repeatedly during the investigation, after which point Leonard recommended that the wife buy a GPS device and leave it in Villanova’s car’s glove compartment. The tracker allowed Leonard to keep tabs on Villanova and found him leaving a driveway in his car with a woman who wasn’t his wife. Villanova sued, claiming the incident invaded his privacy and caused emotional distress, but apparently the appellate court didn’t agree.

The ruling doesn’t apply to police use of GPS information, but does open the door for private investigators to employ GPS data in their investigations, at least in New Jersey. What’s interesting about the ruling is that GPS trackers and information are so wide-spread thanks to smartphones that there’s a lot of location data floating around out there, and this ruling sets a precedent for how it can be used in court.

Calls to protect location data

Recently, lawmakers have been calling on Google and Apple to protect smartphone location data for users, after it was discovered that an apparent bug in Apple’s iOS software was saving all the location data the phone created in an unencrypted file on its iPhones. That bug has since been fixed, but apparently it had been in effect for months and had been used in investigations such as the one in the Villanova case.

According to one researcher, law enforcement officials had even been making use of the unencrypted iPhone data in their criminal investigations without a warrant. While the ruling in New Jersey doesn’t apply to law enforcement officers using GPS in investigations and only to private investigators, it does raise some questions about precedent, especially since GPS and mobile technology is a rapidly progressing gray area.

Lawmakers are attempting to set up protections for mobile customers for location tracking, and the Federal Trade Commission even advocated the installation of a control that cuts off all location tracking in smartphones, which would be easy for consumers. Those protections could become a really good idea if judges continue to find that GPS doesn’t violate privacy without further laws in place, because with so much information floating around, it’s hard to determine how it might be used.

It seems if you’re unfaithful to your spouse, in one state at least, your location data isn’t protected in all cases. It’ll be up to lawmakers to determine what situations it is protected in, if any.