Several days ago a 20-year-old student discovered a GPS tracking device hidden on his car. After his friend posted a picture of it online, speculating about its ties to a secret FBI investigation, the feds themselves came a-knockin', according to Wired.com. They wanted their toy back.
Based on the discussion with the six FBI agents who arrived at his doorstep, Yassir Afifi believes he'd been under surveillance for three to six months. When Wired asked an FBI spokesman about the case, he did not acknowledge ownership of the device, but said that there was an "ongoing investigation."
Afifi says that he cooperated with the FBI and, according to Wired, "did nothing to merit attention from authorities." He is a U.S. citizen who lives in Santa Clara, Calif., where he attends Mission College.
Afifi's father, an Islamic-American activist, died a year ago in Egypt. It is not clear what the circumstances of his death were, or if this was the reason for the FBI's investigation of Afifi.
The gadget itself — a GPS receiver identified as a police-issue-only Cobham Orion Guardian ST820 tracking system, connected to a battery pack and radio transmitter — was magnetically attached to the car. A shot of it made its way around the blogosphere on Monday, after appearing on the community news site Reddit. After Afifi spotted an antenna sticking out during an oil change, the garage owner offered to yank it out. It apparently popped off quite easily.
The question of whether or not sticking a GPS on a car is legal is actually in the middle of a hot debate right now. One federal court recently said that it was legal, while another said that tracking for an "extended period of time" would in fact require a warrant. (For more on this, here's a great piece in Time written by lawyer and tech journalist Adam Cohen.)
Legality aside, the tactic itself might have been carried out with something less than precision. Simply put, tracking devices shouldn't be so easy to find. Wired talked to an agent who said that not only is the tracking device out of date, but state-of-the-art snoops hardwire the stuff directly to the car's electrical system, avoiding the need for a battery.
What's impressive is how quickly Afifi got an identification of the gadget by crowdsourcing it on the Web. On the flipside, that kind of exposure isn't good PR for the FBI. Surely the revelation of the magnetic tracker will cause many people to check under their own cars. Like many noble efforts to keep us safe from terrorism, this one may be turning out to not be so effective. After all, those who already know they're involved in illegal activity probably check their cars every day, rain or shine.