Flickr image of GPS courtesy James Scott

Local police in the state of Delaware can no longer secretly affix GPS devices to the cars of suspects without first heading to court and obtaining a warrant that proves it’s justified. That’s what a Delaware judge decided in one of several recent federal and state cases that are testing the boundaries of digital law-enforcement surveillance in the 21st century.

Superior Court Judge Jan Jurden ruled that without the courts stepping in to protect privacy, there is nothing to prevent innocent citizens from being tracked by police 24 hours a day. Investigators followed the whereabouts of a man last February for days before pulling him over and seizing 10 pounds of marijuana. But Jurden’s decision meant the evidence had to be suppressed and charges against the driver subsequently abandoned.

According to Delaware’s News Journal:

Though police can follow a suspect in public, there are limits to how long officers can keep up the tail, whereas a GPS device never sleeps and ‘provides more information than one reasonably expects to be ‘exposed to the public,’ the judge wrote. To get the same level of detail using only old-fashioned police surveillance techniques would require ‘millions of additional police officers and cameras on every street lamp,’ Jurden wrote. And if no warrant is required for such surveillance, ‘any individual could be tracked indefinitely without suspicion of any crime … No one should be subject to such scrutiny by police without probable cause,’ she concluded.

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Several high-profile cases involving domestic terrorism allegations grabbed headlines during 2010, and National Public Radio says observers should expect to see more during the new year involving undercover agents and informants. Experts refer to many of them as “lone wolf” cases, in which terrorism suspects act largely on their own in planning small-scale attacks. But many such incidents have involved federal authorities providing individuals under investigation with the supplies they believed could be used to create a deadly explosion.

The bombs were fake and police moved in for an arrest after the alleged conspirators tried to set them off. That’s what happened with a 19-year-old man who purportedly tried to blow up a Christmas tree-lighting ceremony in Oregon. Authorities were in on it the whole time. From NPR’s counterterrorism correspondent, Dina Temple-Raston:

As it turns out, this increasing interest in violent jihad in the U.S. coincides with al-Qaida’s smaller scaled aspirations. Pinned down by drone attacks in the border region between Pakistan and Afghanistan, the group’s leadership has been calling on affiliates to launch attacks – any attacks. And that call is expected to grow louder next year. ‘I think regional affiliates will get more aggressive precisely because al-Qaida central is being pressed so hard in South Asia,’ says Bruce Hoffman, a terrorism expert at Georgetown University. ‘So the current terrorist strategy ironically is at once a product of our own success and indeed of their own resiliency. Even under this intense pressure, they are able not only to survive, but evolve a different strategy.’

Temple-Raston reported on the Lackawanna Six “sleeper cell” in a 2007 book, “The Jihad Next Door.”

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Defense mega-contractor Lockheed Martin is tangled up in a legal dispute with New York City’s transportation authority over hundreds of millions of dollars worth of surveillance equipment, including cameras, the company was hired to install. Like so many ambitious homeland security initiatives, the campaign for greater electronic surveillance in New York City picked up steam after the Sept. 11 hijackings.

Lockheed was supposed to have the network of digital eyes complete by late summer 2008. But things may be postponed now until 2012 due to the legal wrangling. The project is reportedly running as much as $200 million over budget.

Lockheed first sought in court to terminate its contract with New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority complaining that the agreement was breached after its work was held up. Public officials countersued and pushed back to have the contract nullified on their terms. Now it’s difficult to discern who should be blamed.

Says a progress report from New York’s state comptroller last year:

While the MTA has hired other contractors to continue work on the electronic security program, it acknowledges that the remaining resources for this project are insufficient to achieve the full functionality that was contemplated under the original contract. Instead, the MTA has begun pursuing a short-term goal of achieving the maximum operational capability with the remaining funds. Two MTA agencies are now benefiting from the electronic security program, but three others are lagging far behind and there is no target date to complete the project.

G.W. Schulz is a reporter for Reveal, covering security, privacy, technology and criminal justice. Since joining The Center for Investigative Reporting in 2008, he's reported stories for NPR, KQED, Wired.com, The Dallas Morning News, the Chicago Tribune, the San Francisco Chronicle, Mother Jones and more. Prior to that, he wrote for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and was an early contributor to The Chauncey Bailey Project, which won a Tom Renner Award from Investigative Reporters and Editors in 2008. Schulz also has won awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Northern California Chapter. He graduated from the University of Kansas and is based in Austin, Texas.