There are a smattering of sayings and aphorisms I have stored in my brain for use when an appropriate moment arises. One of them is “Sometimes it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission.” In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court yesterday ruled — at least with regard to the placement of GPS tracking devices on the vehicles of persons under investigation for some sort of crime — that “forgiveness” won’t fly. You must get “permission” in the form of a search warrant in order to steer clear of the Fourth Amendment issues raised in U.S. v. Jones (more on that in the sidebar).
The timing of the Jones decision is particularly interesting to me because I’ve recently been testing a GPS tracking device called SilverCloud from a company called LandAirSea. I’ve had the SilverCloud device in my possession for a couple of months, holding onto it specifically to feature in the January 2012 Investigations eNews (slotted to run one week from today).
Alongside my friend and colleague Lindsey Quinby, I originally ran the cell-phone sized device through its paces during a test drive in the neighborhood around the PoliceOne office in early December. I told her as we drove that the name of the company — LandAirSea — all but compelled me to not settle for a simple terrestrial test, so I enlisted the assistance of my brother in law, who happens to have access to both a boat and a small plane.
So, during the recent Christmas holiday, my brother in law and I set out to the local airport for a late afternoon flight to involve some touch-and-go landings at an airport just west of our starting point, followed by a “quick turn” to pick up a couple of passengers from the FBO down at Sacramento International about 90 miles south of our location.
I really wanted to also drop the boat in the water, but one can only do so much “work” on Christmas Day without a certain number of disapproving looks from loved ones at the dinner table.
I’ll cut to the chase: The SilverCloud performed spectacularly well.
I recently generated a series of reports on the data gathered during that Christmas Day flight, and while I did observe some slightly wonky characteristics of the web browser interface — for security purposes it logs you out a little too quickly for my tastes, for example — the information it provides is awesome. Once you’ve created an Activity Summary Report, for example, you can click on any point in the “trail” left by the vehicle to determine the address — naturally you can also see the duration of time the vehicle was there.
In the image below, you can see our straight-in approach to runway 16 Right, our exit onto the taxiway to the east, and our taxi to the FBO at the south end of the field. You can see the time stamp indicating when the ramp rat popped the chocks on the tires.
We collected our passengers, received our permission from Sac Ground to taxi back to the runway, did our run-up and magneto checks (there’s a time stamp for that too), and took off, banking right 25-degrees off centerline before looping around the Teal Bend Golf Club and heading home.
One segment of our Christmas Day flight in the Sacramento Valley area of California. (PoliceOne Image)
Accuracy by Abundance of Data
You can choose to review any of those reports in either an HTML presentation or in a PDF document. I created a PDF of our second-by-second movement and was delighted to find the device had accurately tracked our altitude (down to less than ten feet ASL!) throughout the duration of our afternoon aloft. When I zoomed in on the above map, I could see the precise spot on the ramp we parked during our quick visit to that Sacramento FBO.
“I think that our three-second real-time tracking is one of the fastest on the market right now,” said Vincent Lee, LandAirSea Director of Marketing when we spoke this morning via phone. “Everybody else [offers] one-minute, or three-minute, or ten-minute interval tracking, and that leaves a lot of missing information — lots of gaps — within the data. The higher the interval, the more data you have, and the more accurate the information is going to be, and that’s critical if you want to take that to court to be accepted as evidence.”
Lee explained further that all the reports in the HTML format can be presented in either two-dimensional (aerial / map view) or three-dimensional (street view provided by Google Maps). As with many types of collected data, I have to believe that depending on the information you want, you can generate a report to get you where you need to be.
Affordability, Durability, Precision, Simplicity
Out of the box, the SilverCloud really doesn’t look like much — but that’s by design. Like any good piece of covert equipment, it would very likely blend into any “woodwork” in the undercarriage of a car. According to company literature Lee sent to me, the SilverCloud Professional Pack includes the “GPS tracker, waterproof case with magnet mount, and extended battery. The accessories, which come with this package, allows for extended tracking time and external installation
ideal for law enforcement professionals.”
All this, of course, is now going to have to sit on a shelf until such time as you can get that warrant from a Judge (more on that in the sidebar above).
Although yesterday’s SCOTUS decision may have an impact on any (or all) of these agencies, according to information provided to me in late 2011, a variety of law enforcement agencies such as the Michigan State Police, Chicago Police Department, and the U.S. Marshall Service have been using GPS tracking technology from LandAirSea.
Pricing certainly seems to be right — just north of $450 per unit.
As is stated in the abovementioned sidebar, there are certainly some unanswered questions related to the use of GPS tracking devices in criminal investigations. Associate Justice Antonin Scalia said that the government's installation of a GPS device, and its use to monitor the vehicle's movements, constitutes a search, but the court did not (to my knowledge) say whether or not the decision in Jones would be applied retroactively, for example.
The answers to those questions notwithstanding, this device from LandAirSea certainly merits a close look by any agency interested in using GPS tracking technology.