Car Surveillance

Car Surveillance
by Susan Basko, esq.

This is the 5th in a series about spyware used against people.  

In January 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that law enforcement agencies must have a warrant before they can attach a GPS unit to a person's car.   The main Court opinion stated that the intrusion onto the vehicle constituted a search under the 4th Amendment.  The decision hinted at, but did not specifically address, whether it is legal for law enforcement agencies to track people through their cell phones.

Before this ruling, law enforcement agencies were apparently making widespread use of GPS tracking devices.  This was a huge boon for manufacturers and sellers of these devices.  Now, a warrant based on probable cause is required -- but in reality, a warrant is not hard to get.  A warrant does mean there is a paper trail of overuse or abuse of car surveillance tracking. 

I may be cynical, but I think illegal tracking will be outsourced to quasi-law enforcement agencies: those private companies that work in tandem with law enforcement agencies and do not follow the law.    The information from warrantless tracking will not be admissible in court, but the person's movement will still be followed. 

Today, the most up-to-date GPS tracking devices are very small - the size of an ipod to the size of a slim cell phone.  They are placed into a black plastic box that holds the tracker and a battery.  The box is lined with foam to prevent jostling.  On the outside of the box, large flat round magnets are screwed into one side.  The box is stuck onto the car using the magnets.  The most likely location is on the outside of the car bottom, on the rear of the back bumper, or near the wheel well.  They may also be placed under a seat or in a glove compartment, but that requires repeat access to the car -- to first place the tracker box, then to replace it with one that has fresh batteries, and later to remove it.

The batteries on a GPS tracker today can last about 2 weeks. However, most of the newer models have a switch that turns on in response to light or motion.  So when the car moves, the tracker turns on.  That saves on battery power and can make a tracker last much longer without needing to be swapped out for a powered unit.  One device is supposed to last a year without a battery swap.  Another unit uses wireless charging, so at least in theory, the device could be indefinitely recharged without removal. 

Today's GPS trackers work by GPS and cell tower triangulation.  Some units can not only send information, but can also receive signals that change the settings, such as on/off and low/high motion sensors.  Some will respond to a "Where are you now?" query.  Some units have 2-way radio communication and a base unit can send over the air (OTA) instructions to the tracker.

Another feature some trackers have is that they report when a vehicle (or other thing being tracked) passes outside a boundary or passes a marker.  Those markers are sometimes called geo-fences.  Surveillance teams may place a geo marker in or on a street light pole or on some other sturdy, public thing.  

Some GPS surveillance systems work by alerting the surveillance person with an email or text.  Other systems have a full, constant tracking.  The surveillance team must buy a subscription to an online service and a cell phone service.  They then tune in to the service online and can watch the GPS tracker move around on a google map --  with the views that google maps has -- street view, map, satellite.  The systems also get a text readout of street locations.  Some systems work on a cell phone or hand-held unit.  Therefore, the person tracking you may be watching your moves on a small device that looks just like a cell phone.

Sendum PT200 GPS tracker

The Sendum PT200 was the first and smallest GPS tracker.  It is called a package tracker, because it was designed to be placed into packages to try to ensure their intact delivery.  The unit is very small and costs around $350.  For car surveillance, it is sold with a black plastic waterproof box with magnets on the outside.  The newer PT300 is slimmer, like a very slim small cell phone.  

FW Geo F3 Tracker in waterproof case.
It is placed on car with the large round magnets seen on left.
FreightWatch GPS trackers work with a QualComm subscription.  FreightWatch claims that its  Geo F3 Covert Tracker has a battery that can last a full year.  They say it works indoors, in elevators,  inside cargo containers, hidden under cars.  It weighs 3 ounces including the internal battery and is about 3.5 inches by 2.5 inches x 1 inch.

Ntrepid Corporation, which has been affiliated with Abraxas Corporation, jumped into the GPS tracker market by making a light and motion sensor switch for the Sendum PT200. These were sold to the FBI.  They were an inexpensive upgrade, costing about $120 each.  Since then, companies have come out with newer models that include the light and motion sensors.  Ntrepid sells direct to federal, state, and local law enforcement and government agencies.  Their products are meant to track packages, vehicles and people.  Ntrepid sells a line of sensors called Elusiv EL1501, 1502, 1503, 1505, 1506 and  1530, each of which does a different configuration of power level compatibility, time and motion triggering, and delayed time response.  One model is designed to fit into the Sendum PT200.

Ntrepid sells 2 tracker models,  which they call the Hawk and the Hummingbird.  The Hawk has GPS and GSM antennas, embedded SIM and 2 built-in geo-fences.  It works with their product called EVE (Elusiv Visualization Environment), which is the system for watching the tracker location on either an internet browser or on the mobile handset device that they sell.  The Hummingbird is small and slim and claims to have wireless battery charging.  If so, the Hummingbird could last indefinitely.  Wireless charging is also known as inductive charging and uses an electromagnetic field to charge the device.

Ntrepid also sells UHF RF beacon tags with a base unit.  The beacon tag is a very small device with an antenna.  It has a unique RFID (radio frequency identification) that it sends to the base unit when it is within about 300 feet of the base unit.  The RFID tag has very low power consumption and can last for years.

Ntrepid also sells an item they call TVis that looks like a cell phone, but is the graphic user interface for the tracker.

Some companies online sell GPS vehicle trackers to anyone.  Sendum even markets one as being a good way to track relatives with Alzheimers disease.  Employers are allowed to use GPS trackers on vehicles they provide for you to use while at work.  Rental cars often have built-in GPS monitors and some have cameras.  Some courts have ruled that cameras in rental cars are illegal invasions of privacy. Since anyone can buy a tracker, there is a great possibility of abuse.  There are many articles online about how to track the movements of  a spouse or boy/girlfriend using a GPS tracker.  Such stalking actions are illegal, but people still do them.

How to Check for a GPS tracker on your own car:  Put on gloves to keep your hands clean. Use a small flashlight with strong light.  Use a small mirror to see under the car.  The best sort of mirror to use is a lit, magnifying handheld mirror, the kind that is used for tweezing eyebrows.  The Tweezermate mirror is excellent and costs $15.00.   Check the wheel wells and behind the rear bumper.  If someone has had access to your car, check the glove compartment , under the seats, in a trunk or cargo area.

 The unit is most likely on the exterior of the car, so that it can be easily swapped out and removed.  Keep in mind that the person placing it has likely done so while you were parked on a public street or in a parking lot and has placed it in under 20 seconds.  Therefore, look in obvious locations where a box slightly larger than a cell phone can be stuck with magnets.  Remember, the unit is likely to have light sensors on it, so shining the light onto it will turn it on and send out alerts.



  1. This post was very insightful. I did not realize that law enforcement needed a warrant to put a tracking by GPS unit onto a persons car. It definitely makes sense though. I feel that if police did not have a warrant it would be an invasion of privacy upon a human being. Thanks for posting, it was very interesting to learn about.

    1. Do you have ANY idea how OFTEN the cops and the Feds do things without warrants? And do you have ANY idea AT ALL how "difficult" it can be to get lawyers to HELP you when it's the AUTHORITIES who violated your rights!!??


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