Muslim student sues FBI over GPS tracking device placed on his car without a warrant

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) this week filed a civil rights lawsuit against the FBI on behalf of Yasir Afifi, a Muslim-American student of Egyptian descent who lives in Santa Clara, California.

Mr. Afifi last year discovered a strange gadget attached to the underside of his car, when he took his car in for an oil change. He was afraid it was a pipe bomb. A friend of his then posted photos of Reddit, asking if anyone knew what it was. With the help of savvy internet observers, and civil rights groups including the ACLU and CAIR, Afifi soon figured out that this was a secret GPS tracking device, placed by the FBI without a warrant to spy on his movements and activities. News of the internet attention spread to FBI agents, who then demanded he return the device to the bureau.

Here's an overview of the lawsuit at AP, San Francisco Chronicle, SJ Merc, CNN.

Here is a PDF of the suit, via CAIR.com.

Video, from CAIR.com: Is FBI Using GPS Devices to Spy on Muslims?

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  1. If I were to open an informal vehicle inspection service to any one who suspected they had such a device, what would their liability be if I removed and sold any tracking device I found? If I offered this service anonymously, and explained that they wouldn’t be told if a device was removed, what recourse would the FBI have against them? I’m thinking of setting up a website which would match volunteer mechanics with nervous brothers of the Muslim faith. Good religious outreach, if you ask me.

  2. There is actually more to this story. There was a source, Fuzzy Dunlop, who provided some pretty damning testimony about Mr. Afifi’s activities.

    1. I don’t care in the slightest about Mr. Afifi’s activities. If he warranted surveillance, the FBI should have gotten a warrant, just like they do for everyone else. Circumventing the protections we have as citizens against abuses of the State are ruined if we allow the State to ignore them “For a good reason”.

      1. That was a reference to “The Wire” in which a somewhat corrupt cop tries to get dirt on a suspect using a made-up informant and loses an expensive piece of surveillance equipment in the process.

      2. You do realize the FBI does not need a warrant to follow a car around right? They can follow you around all they want. You can follow around anyone you want, I can follow you around if I want. What they need the warrant for is to go inside your house and search for things. Not saying this is right, but I believe a court case determined it was legal since they don’t need a warrant to follow a car driving around on public roads

        1. you do realize the FBI does not need a warrant to follow a car around right? They can follow you around all they want. You can follow around anyone you want, I can follow you around if I want. What they need the warrant for is to go inside your house and search for things. Not saying this is right, but I believe a court case determined it was legal since they don’t need a warrant to follow a car driving around on public roads

          Indeed. Logged in to post this but you saved me the hassle.

        2. You do realize the FBI does not need a warrant to follow a car around right? They can follow you around all they want. You can follow around anyone you want, I can follow you around if I want. What they need the warrant for is to go inside your house and search for things. Not saying this is right, but I believe a court case determined it was legal since they don’t need a warrant to follow a car driving around on public roads

          First off, IANAL. I am a fictional informant.

          But are you suggesting that the FBI has the right to plant a tracking device on someone’s vehicle just because they could have, theoretically, followed the guy around? Because I don’t think it’s quite that simple.

          1. That was the New York State Court ruling on the State Constitution, not a federal issue. The feds can do it. I’d say CAIR is doing this to publicise the issue rather than to win a case. Because they won’t.

        3. You do realize the FBI does not need a warrant to follow a car around right? They can follow you around all they want. You can follow around anyone you want, I can follow you around if I want. What they need the warrant for is to go inside your house and search for things. Not saying this is right, but I believe a court case determined it was legal since they don’t need a warrant to follow a car driving around on public roads

          And you wonder why people hate lawyers? Anyone who reads the 4th amendment and some how manages to twist the meaning of that into “the government can track your every move without warrant” is either a fucking idiot or a lawyer.

          The fact that it is feasible that someone could tail you 24/7 is pretty handily limited by the fact that it would take massive resources and still be prone to failure. Slapping a GPS onto someone’s car on the other hand is trivial and cheap. The law, and certainly the intention the law, was to keep the government from stalking its citizens without just cause and oversight. The fact that technology has made stalking cheap doesn’t make it suddenly okay.

          1. Your movements in public are all but a matter of public record. The difference between today and 20-30 years ago is that such information can now be organized and collected like never before. Before GPS tracking, investigators had to talk to people who know you and ask if they saw you, where you were, and maybe they would talk, maybe they wouldn’t. Now, they can just slap a GPS on your car, or use your cellphone to spy on you. If anything, it’s streamlining investigations.

            There are things you can do to make this more difficult for the government, e.g., don’t carry a cellphone, purchase with only cash, keep your identity offline as much as possible. The less data you leave behind, the harder you are to track.

    2. If that is true then they should have secured a warrant. It’s fine for the various Law Enforcement Agencies of the country to keep an eye on suspected Terrorists. It’s even OK to bug their houses, cars and phones – as long as they have a warrant that explains why this person is suspected of what crimes and describes the places/things to be bugged/searched. That warrant needs to be signed by a judge. All of this is in the 4th amendment.

      Doing any of that stuff without a warrant, however, violates the 4th amendment. It’s absolutely dangerous and anti-liberty to allow violations on the Bill of Rights to keep us “safer”.

        1. No kidding, it’s not like “Fuzzy Dunlop” is a plausible name. I hadn’t heard of the name or the Wire before, and it took me 2 seconds to get it and have a decent laugh.

  3. @rayfool

    If it was that damning, then getting a warrant wouldn’t have been a problem.

    The issue isn’t the tracking – it’s the fact the FBI think they are above the law. If they’d applied for a warrant using the proper channels, this would be a non-story and they’d have avoided a lawsuit (and a heap of embarrassment)

  4. Testimony doesn’t let the FBI spy on you without a warrant bro. Even if this fellow is breaking laws and is a bad dude, they’re screwing any shot at a legal case against him.

    Nail the bastards to the wall.

  5. The FBI was at first baffled as to how their GPS was receiving the movements of caged pigeons instead of their target.

  6. Shouldn’t his description read an “Egyptian-American student of the Muslim faith” rather than “Muslim-American student of Egyptian descent”?

  7. Best line from the Wired article:
    “We have all the information we needed,” they told him. “You don’t need to call your lawyer. Don’t worry, you’re boring.“

    Oh, you’ve secretly been tracking me without a warrant but now that you’ve promised me I don’t need a lawyer I won’t worry about a thing. Thanks guys, we’re having a little family barbecue next week, why don’t you guys come on by? Bring the black helicopters for the kids!

    Any reassurance from them at that point is kind of useless, no matter how well-intentioned it may have been.

  8. I know that TV bears no relation to reality, but on most cop shows, gps tracking devices are about the size of a quarter. Heck, on NCIS-LA, I think they had a gps tracker built into a spray. One spray of this “thing” on your neck, and they could track you all over the world. From the looks of what a real FBI tracker looks like, you’d think they’d never put that over on anyone.

    1. This depends largely on whether you’re using a passive, or active tracker.

      Passive trackers only record the location they’ve been, or can be found by a separate locating device used nearby (think radioactive markers).

      Active trackers must transmit the information they collect, and that consumes a huge amount of power. Think of it as a cell phone that must go weeks or longer without recharging, and suddenly the size makes more sense.

  9. Did he get a receipt? I like to think that I’d insist on one, but the reality is that in real life, dealing with law enforcement people who have ALREADY demonstrated that they may be playing fast and loose with the rules would be pretty scary.

    1. this is exactly why the law as interpreted is so scary; the FBI can go down private roads to use these devices.

  10. Dude should have found a bridge over a railroad line, waited for a passing, open-topped hopper car, and dropped it.

    OOPS!

    1. I second Baldhead. Having the physical evidence is what makes the difference between “FBI caught practicing warrantless surveillance” and “paranoid Muslim claims the government is watching him.”

  11. The FBI has a history of “forgetting” to get warrants and overstepping their bounds.

    Cell phones are some of the most perfect tracking devices. They have GPS in it and most people don’t go anywhere without one. That and your cell phone microphone in some cases can be turned on for eavesdropping without you knowing about it.

    1. they’re probably “collecting info” which, if found damning and worth using as evidence, would then require a warrant… That’s FBI’s way of shooting blindly into the night with a shotgun and then going to obtain a hunting license if they see anything dead. Just like in my analogy, the point is that you need the warrant in order to intrude into people’s privacy, not after the intrusive observations into their privacy proves prosecutable. Otherwise, Big Brother should be able to watch all of you going about your private lives and only get warrants to go bust the “bad apples”. That is not the basis of our democratic law enforcement philosophy.

  12. While disposing of the device iscertainly cathartic, I should think keeping it and making a big stink with the media and lawyaers would get better results in general. Of course there’s always going to be people in government comfortable with breaking their own rules, but they should always be called out when caught.

    1. Well, then why doesn’t the FBI produce the warrant. Surely if this guy was “boring,” then the FBI would have no problem showing the grounds on which such a warrant was obtained. One would think they might leap at the chance to demonstrate their dedication to due process.

  13. Man, even if a person thinks that spying is okay, I can’t imagine the feeling of seeing that thing under my vehicle. Suddenly my “check under the car” policy I’ve kept since I was a kid seems a lot less silly.

  14. Not to rain on anyone’s parade…

    But if that is a GPS how is it operating under a car? Unless they somehow jury rigged it to the radio antenna (which I am not sure would work anyway), a GPS requires line of sight of at least 3 satellites to function. So if it is positioned under a car, I don’t see how it would function. Heck simple “leaves” can foil any GPS device.

    The only thing I can think of is it actually uses GPS-Assist, where it is a cellphone that is triangulating location from GPS signals from cell towers…

    Anyway if it was located under car between muffler and tire, I would say it’s not a GPS if all its got is that dinky antenna sticking out of it, it would never get enough signal.

    Also not only is most of that batteries to keep the thing running (try running the shotty GPS on your phone for a long time and see how long your battery lasts when not plugged in, there is a reason GPS devices are A) plugged in, and B) on your dash), but also the reason why they likely want it back is that it probably has a data logger attached to it recording all the data. This isn’t something being beamed back to base via satellite. Technology doesn’t work like the movies, Enemy of the State it isn’t. Though if it is a cell, it could be transmitting data bursts through 3G network or something. Interesting.

    Though all of that is going to eat batteries for breakfast. I guess that is the reason for the “pipe bomb” design… Even then its effective lifespan must be limited.

    A more intelligent design would be to tap the 12v car battery, and to only transmit and use GPS when car is moving. That would allow for continual observation… someone could still find an extra wire leaching off one of your other wires, but likely harder to spot than a huge battery pack duct taped to your exhaust.

    1. you know how a “Fridge” isn’t always a Frigidaire? Same thing. Cell phones have a GPS, just not using the network of GPS satellites.

      Sort of how GoogleMaps is a GIS, but it really isn’t a GIS. I could have that debate, but it’s easier to understand that one in a noun, and the other an adjective, and just move on.

      Fixating on the words rather than the concepts weakens your position significantly, in any communication.

    2. My old GPS unit (GPS12XL? The ones the USAF put in the survival kits for pilots who eject, or did for a long time) runs a very long time on a few AA batteries. It doesn’t take much power. The reason dashboard GPS units need to be powered isn’t the receiver, its the LCD backlight.

      Two long established bits of 4th Amendment doctrine are what are going to stop this case in its tracks. Plain View and Open Fields. Maybe if your car were invisible so that there was no reasonable expectation that people don’t see it going down the road you’d have a claim that it was unreasonable to see where it goes. The 4th Amendment is actually pretty specific in what it protects. Because you can see a car driving down the road there’s no protection against using another method to ‘see’ it.

      1. Because you can see a car driving down the road there’s no protection against using another method to ‘see’ it.

        As in remote or satellite cameras, yes.

        As in tracking devices, not at all. Not without a warrant.

    3. Explain this: I’m sitting here in my house and the gps works on my phone. Not cell gps but actual gps.

    4. You need to do 10 minutes of research before spouting off like that, Vain, or at least read the links in the post. That tracker is a standard unit commercially-produced and sold to law enforcement for years, along with the required subscription to proprietary tracking software.

      All of this has been extensively investigated and discussed over the past year.

      Not to rain on anyone’s parade.

  15. OK, I think is difficult this, but there are a easy road.
    Use cook Aluminium paper, and cover GPS completly like a big piace of meat, for Faraday cage, The gps works but no one get a signal…
    Test with your mobile phone, and you see that if you call your mobile the mobile responds like is off

  16. Man I hope he hits them hard and they can’t just arbitrarily violate the very rights they should be upholding. Disappointed and adding to my cynicism.

  17. Stop misreading everything! They were just trying to get rid of their old tech. Although if they wanted to do it on the sly, someone should have brought up the fact that it appears to be half as big as the car.

  18. In areas with decent cellular coverage, DIY “active” GPS tracking is pretty easy and inexpensive to do (under $100), with a significantly smaller form factor (only a cell phone): http://www.instamapper.com/diy.html

    One can power it from a car pretty easily too: http://forums.instamapper.com/viewtopic.php?id=1205

    For around $200, one can get a cell phone modified to use a credit-card sized Li-Poly battery and an accelerometer that only turns it on when moved, which lasts ~3 weeks on a charge: http://forums.instamapper.com/viewtopic.php?id=348

    Here are users’ stories of neat (and completely legal) ways to use these tracking devices: http://forums.instamapper.com/viewforum.php?id=15&p=1

  19. I can’t wait until all-composite bodied cars are available to mere mortals. Magnets won’t stick to carbon fibre. They’ll have to find another way.

  20. The guy who foreclosed Wells Fargo should lend his lawyer, to press illegal wiretap charges against the FBI.

  21. It’s absolutely legal. I’m a law student studying this right now. See cases like U.S. v Garcia, U.S. v. Pineda-Moreno, U.S v. Marquez. As long as they could have been following you in a car, the GPS is just a substitute for visual surveillance.
    This has nothing to do with the Patriot Act, but rather with 4th amendment interpretations leading all the way back to U.S. v Katz and U.S. v Knotts.

  22. So it would seem to be theoretically legal, given the appropriate technology, for the government to follow the movements of every vehicle in the US at all times. Perhaps it would be legal also to data-mine the resulting movements in order to look for suspicious activity. It probably won’t be long until that’s technologically feasible.

  23. Every time I hear about this story I am amazed that the FBI had the balls/stupidity to ask for an illegally planted device back. A.) it was put there without a warrant, and B.) it was a secret, in both cases you don’t admit that it’s yours. What kind of dolts is the FBI hiring these days?

  24. FBI uses the museum device for training on boring targets. Exciting targets get real agents & modern device.

  25. I don’t think I would have returned it with retreivable information intact. Prying the case apart to try to find out what it was and accidently dropping it in the tiolet is unfortunate. But here is your GPS tracker. Too bad you didn’t tell me what it was or that it was there so I could take care of it. I guess you could just ask me where I have gone. Of course, I’ll politely decline to answer questions.

  26. I don’t get the whole “public road makes it ok” argument. They are planting the device on your personal property. It’s different if they are actively tailing you because no one has touched your personal vehicle.

    Its like saying it would be ok to put a secret camera in your living room because “it is possible to look in the window from the sidewalk”

  27. The device seems too large for serving only a single GPS function. If there is a TI in the neighborhood, could it be a v2k device?

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