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Feds taunt rights group with blacked-out docs on GPS tracking

Published time: January 17, 2013 03:35
Edited time: January 22, 2013 19:26

The first two pages of a US government document regarding GPS surveillance on American citizens given to the ACLU. (via aclu.org)

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The American Civil Liberties Union has been given information on how Washington determines when it can surveil American citizens using GPS. The documents are so heavily redacted by the Justice Department, though, that they are essentially worthless.

­The redacted sections – which consume several paragraphs and even entire pages – are thought to show legal interpretations outlining the government's rationale on tracking its citizens with GPS. With so much of the documents blacked out, Americans are still wondering whether the federal government is required to obtain a warrant before spying on them with GPS technology – and if so, when exactly it can do so.

The ACLU, one of the most powerful American civil rights groups, had to sue the government in August 2011 with a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request in order to get their hands on the memos.

­The memos "outline the Justice Department’s conclusions regarding its obligations" under US v. Jones, a January 2012 Supreme Court trial that saw a unanimous ruling in favor of requiring law enforcement to get a warrant before tracking American citizens without their knowledge, ACLU staff attorney Catherine Crump wrote in a statement on the matter. They also show how the Justice Department's Criminal Division wrote up another memorandum, “Guidance Regarding the Application of United States v. Jones to GPS Tracking Devices,” in late February of 2012. That July, the same division wrote another document on the same topic that it said “should not be disseminated outside the Department of Justice.”

Such a move by Washington bureaucrats is not unprecedented by any means. For example, the government has refused American citizens access to the legal opinions guiding its use of PATRIOT Act Section 215, which applies to the seizure of personal material. The section's vague language allows law enforcement to search or seize "any tangible things" based on a few guidelines.

The government also keeps secret its legal opinions on when it is or is not acceptable to kill Americans with drones. President Barack Obama has even blocked at least one senator, Ron Wyden (D-OR), from seeing the opinions – though legislators are required access to them by law. 

The ACLU says it will ask for a court order requiring the Justice Department to release the documents, which the group says are "improperly withheld."

"The purpose [of] FOIA is to make sure the government doesn’t operate under secret law—and right now that’s exactly what these memos are," the statement concludes.

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