Student Who Found GPS Device On His Car Due To Reddit Comment Sues The FBI

from the don't-mess-with-reddit dept

Last fall, we wrote about the bizarre situation of Yasir Afifi, a student here in California who discovered a GPS tracking device on his car during an oil change, and then posted photos of the device on Reddit. Following that, the FBI showed up at his house demanding the tracking device back. It later turned out that the key reason behind tracking him was a random comment on Reddit that -- if read in context -- did not represent any kind of threat or warning that should have resulted in FBI surveillance. But, of course, since there's almost no oversight on who the FBI gets to spy on, it didn't care and just started tracking Afifi.

Afifi has now sued the government over the tracking action, claiming that it was a violation of his civil rights. There are some differences of opinion in the courts over whether or not the government needs a warrant to place GPS devices on cars, which provides some background for this case. There's a bit of a circuit split on that right now, with the government (obviously) insisting that no warrant is needed. Part of the goal of this lawsuit appears to be to get another ruling on this issue to push it forward. Given the history on this subject, I would guess that Afifi will likely lose the lawsuit, but the possibility that it actually does go in his favor makes the case worth paying attention to.


Reader Comments (rss)

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    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Mar 4th, 2011 @ 2:03pm

    He should have just put in in a box and mailed it to russia. Let them track that!

     

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      Adam Wasserman (profile), Mar 4th, 2011 @ 2:23pm

      Re:

      What with warrentless wiretapping, and gps trackers being planted secretly on citizen's cars, it might be said that Russia has already "been mailed" to the USA.

       

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      el_segfaulto (profile), Mar 4th, 2011 @ 2:23pm

      Re:

      I'd love to capture a chipmunk or raccoon and attach the GPS (humanely) to it.

       

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        Anonymous Coward, Mar 4th, 2011 @ 2:43pm

        Re: Re:

        The tracking device in question weighed well over a pound, and resembled a large mag-light without the light part. I'd love to to see you (humanely) attach a chipmunk to that.

         

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          Chargone (profile), Mar 5th, 2011 @ 5:24am

          Re: Re: Re:

          attaching a chipmunk to it is probably fine.

          attaching it to a chipmunk, on the other hand, might be problematic.

          (the order has implications regarding the function of the result. mostly it's ability to move.)

           

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        Anonymous Coward, Mar 4th, 2011 @ 2:45pm

        Re: Re:

        The tracking device in question weighed well over a pound, and resembled a large mag-light without the light part. I'd love to to see you (humanely) attach a chipmunk to that.

         

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      Dark Helmet (profile), Mar 4th, 2011 @ 2:38pm

      Re:

      "He should have just put in in a box and mailed it to russia. Let them track that!"

      Oh, sure. Like the poor bastard wouldn't have been immediately charged with transporting classified technology to the enemy and summarily executed....

       

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        angelwolf71885 (profile), Mar 4th, 2011 @ 3:03pm

        Re: Re:

        i would of mailed it to ifixit and let them do a tear down on it

         

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        Chargone (profile), Mar 5th, 2011 @ 5:28am

        Re: Re:

        well, skipping the execution part you can get yourself in legal hot water in NZ by posting cryptographic data, which you created yourself, to yourself... our legal system seems to have inherited Britain's fun habit of just quietly Forgetting about laws which are no longer relevant, rather than repealing them, which sometimes leads to some rather bizzare complications.

        also, your car is a cow.
        (legal logic regarding wheel clamps and car towing ends up falling back on some bit of English common law about what happens when your cow wanders into your neighbour's guarden. )

         

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      velox (profile), Mar 6th, 2011 @ 10:39am

      Re:

      "He should have just put in in a box and mailed it to russia. Let them track that!"
      I think this Antarctica address would have been better (and as DH notes, safer too)

      McMurdo Station- RPSC
      PSC 469 Box 700
      APO AP 96599-1035

       

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    nobody, Mar 4th, 2011 @ 2:39pm

    I was just thinking that if i attached it to a feral hog...
    it would serve two purposes... track the hogs movements..
    and give the fbi an useful task for a while..

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 4th, 2011 @ 2:43pm

    He likely would lose the lawsuit because the authorities were not knowingly breaking the law. The legality of the GPS tracker without warrant is in the grey area, there are not any rulings on it either way. He would first have to prove that the device was against the law, and then also show damage. It's not a winning hand, I don't think.

    It is margin. What I have heard is that this sort of tracking device used privately (say to track a rental car) is legal.

     

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      DH's Love Child (profile), Mar 4th, 2011 @ 3:19pm

      Re:

      So, let me get this straight, if the gubment 'unknowingly' breaks the law it's ok, but if we mere plebes do so, 'ignorance of the law is no excuse'?

      Actually that sounds about right now that I read it. Those 3 letter initial agencies shouldn't have to be bothered by such annoying things as laws and the constitution...

       

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        Anonymous Coward, Mar 4th, 2011 @ 5:12pm

        Re: Re:

        No, the government acts in "good faith" based on legal opinion, in an area of the law that is not clearly defined. At best, this guy could get a ruling that says "they aren't allowed to do it", but it would be much harder to claim that the government acted in bad faith or specifically broke the law.

        It isn't "ignorance of the law", it's the old "black hole in the law" that makes this neither legal or illegal. The same following could be done with unmarked police cars, helicopters, security cameras, and such. Is it such a big jump to use technology to achieve the same results?

         

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          DH's Love Child (profile), Mar 10th, 2011 @ 7:19am

          Re: Re: Re:

          Yes it is. When they follow you with a helicopter, or unmarked car, they do not altar your personal property. They had to physically break into his car to plant that device, so that should have been a clear indication that they would need a warrant to do so.

           

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      dbkliv, Mar 6th, 2011 @ 6:13am

      Response to: Anonymous Coward on Mar 4th, 2011 @ 2:43pm

      I think you've mixed up two similar aspects of the story. First, the student is alleging a harm: that his civil liberties were infringed by the government. Second, the placing of GPS trackers on a vehicle is currently a gray issue in the courts: nobody is really all that sure whether a warrant is needed for that action.

      You're saying that first the student needs to prove the FBI agents knowingly broke a law, then prove damage. This isn't how civil liberties infringement cases go though.

      The question at its core is this: does an American resident's reasonable expectation of privacy under the Fourth Amendment include the history of his movements througout a day?

      If the courts agree that this is covered by the reasonable expectation clause, then his civil rights will have been infringed, and his suit will have been successful. And the inverse ourtcome follows.

      There's no mens rea required here. The agents aren't being accused of breaking a law; they're accused of violating the student's civil rights.

      As for the rental cars: the tracking systems are written into the rental contract. By notifying the renter of the potential presence of tracking an monitoring devices, the rental agencies unset the expectation to privacy.

      The fact that the rental agencies notify renters of the tracking devices actually strengthens the student's claim of infringement.

       

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      dbkliv, Mar 6th, 2011 @ 6:13am

      Response to: Anonymous Coward on Mar 4th, 2011 @ 2:43pm

      I think you've mixed up two similar aspects of the story. First, the student is alleging a harm: that his civil liberties were infringed by the government. Second, the placing of GPS trackers on a vehicle is currently a gray issue in the courts: nobody is really all that sure whether a warrant is needed for that action.

      You're saying that first the student needs to prove the FBI agents knowingly broke a law, then prove damage. This isn't how civil liberties infringement cases go though.

      The question at its core is this: does an American resident's reasonable expectation of privacy under the Fourth Amendment include the history of his movements througout a day?

      If the courts agree that this is covered by the reasonable expectation clause, then his civil rights will have been infringed, and his suit will have been successful. And the inverse ourtcome follows.

      There's no mens rea required here. The agents aren't being accused of breaking a law; they're accused of violating the student's civil rights.

      As for the rental cars: the tracking systems are written into the rental contract. By notifying the renter of the potential presence of tracking an monitoring devices, the rental agencies unset the expectation to privacy.

      The fact that the rental agencies notify renters of the tracking devices actually strengthens the student's claim of infringement.

       

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    cc (profile), Mar 4th, 2011 @ 2:44pm

    He'll get $200 and a deportation.

    Btw, have you guys been checking under your cars/the backs of your necks lately? Given the sort of discussions we usually have on TechDirt (including this one, in fact), a few of us are bound to have tracking devices/missiles pointed at our mom's houses! :P

     

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      FuzzyDuck, Mar 4th, 2011 @ 5:36pm

      Re:

      You are being tracked already.
      You are even paying for the device.
      Your cellphone.

       

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      Anonymous Coward, Mar 4th, 2011 @ 10:07pm

      Re:

      He'll get $200 and a deportation.

      According to the article, he was born in the US. Not sure where they will deport him to since he is a citizen of the US.

      Then again, with extraordinary rendition and other unethical/illegal actions done in the past, I suspect him being born in the US and a citizen, they probably can still send him to Mexico like they did with Mark Lyttle.

       

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    puggugly, Mar 4th, 2011 @ 3:01pm

    what to do with it...

    Given the size - attach it to a live vest and throw it in the ocean or nearest river.

     

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    Josef Anvil (profile), Mar 4th, 2011 @ 3:08pm

    *facepalm*

    I don't even know what to say.

    If the FBI is wasting resources chasing anyone with an Arab sounding name who posts anything relating to a bomb on a blog, they really have no clue where to look for terrorists. Makes you wonder how they find kidnappers or murderers.

     

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      Angry Puppy (profile), Mar 4th, 2011 @ 4:39pm

      Re: *facepalm*

      Agreed, if he was Wayne Smith from Jefferson, Wyoming the remark (which seemed only observational and completely nonthreatening to my untrained senses) would have been ignored.

       

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      DH's Love Child (profile), Mar 10th, 2011 @ 7:23am

      Re: *facepalm*

      You must not read this blog regularly.. They find them by creating them in the first place.

       

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    Forge, Mar 4th, 2011 @ 3:11pm

    The FBI is worthless!! Couldn't catch their own butts with both hands and a squad of attack dogs! Rah rah! Allahu Akbar.

    I await delivery of my new (and restricted) electronics.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 4th, 2011 @ 3:14pm

    He should sue Reddit. Isn't that how this whole third party liability thing works?

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 4th, 2011 @ 3:15pm

    God Bless the Police State of America.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 4th, 2011 @ 4:18pm

    Basically, it's easier and more fun to track people writing comments on the web than it is to track criminals, terrorists or others who might shoot back. The FBI has often been the goon squad of corrupt politicians (mostly Republican) and payola paying industrialists.
    I say, opt out. The FBI doesn't work for us. We don't help them. It's fair.

     

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      Christopher (profile), Mar 4th, 2011 @ 5:16pm

      Re:

      Well, I can understand their reasoning after the whole Arizona shooter thing.
      That said, I do N O T think this should be done without a warrant.

       

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    david karapetyan, Mar 5th, 2011 @ 2:04am

    the FBI should change its motto

    I'm sure glad to be taxed every year so that the FBI can have all the resources they need to lead completely useless investigations against college students.

     

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    Michael, Mar 5th, 2011 @ 4:44am

    Classic

    The one time the FBI does the smart thing and profiles, they pick the most harmless person.

     

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    Rekrul, Mar 5th, 2011 @ 9:07am

    With all the discussion about what's legal for the FBI in this incident, I'd be curious to know what's considered legal for the person who finds an unknown device attached to their car.

    If you have no idea what it is or how it got there, do you have any legal obligation to find out or to keep it safe? Is there any law against tampering with or disposing of an unknown device, or unknown origin, that you happen to find attached to your vehicle?

     

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    Thomas (profile), Mar 5th, 2011 @ 10:14am

    Afifi is lucky..

    that the FBI didn't just take him away in a black SUV, never to be seen again. None of the spooks really worry about the legality of what they are doing anyway and they are pretty much free to do what they want.

    I think it would have been better to take the device off his car and put it on a police car or taxi cab.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 5th, 2011 @ 7:07pm

    Well, now that this little government scheme has been exposed, it's too late to put that genie back in the bottle!

     

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    Cybertelecom, Mar 7th, 2011 @ 8:12am

    But There is a First Amendment Problem

    There is one legal issue about whether a warrant is needed for a tracking device.

    There is another legal issue about whether the government can initiate an investigation of you based on innocuous comments. The government cannot exercise its police authority to simply chill speech it finds disagreeable. It cannot initiate a review of your taxes. It cannot check to see if your parking tickets are all paid. And it cannot attach GPS devices to your car simply based on disagreeable speech.

    While a warrant may or may not be needed for an exercise of police authority, it does not mean that the authority gets to be exercised any way the polices wants. There are other constitutional concerns.

     

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    Anonymous Coward, Apr 12th, 2011 @ 7:31pm

    The FBI doesn't think there's any harm

    Does that mean that if an individual places a tracking device, there's no harm?
    What is the harm collecting information?

    BTW: Should've stuck it to a car with out of state plates, sending them to another state.

     

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    GPS Garu, Oct 22nd, 2011 @ 1:30pm

    good faith

    The government was acting in "good faith" They must have a had a reason or they would not have put it their. Even though they found nothing "so what" He did not have anything to hide!!! DID HE?

     

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    Car for Sale Australia, Sep 19th, 2013 @ 11:26pm

    Car for Sale Australia

    The government is overly paranoid and the citizens are getting there. Why not? Our every move and comments are being watched without us knowing it. There are a million US citizens. How is the government able to keep track of all these people?

     

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