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A recent development has both privacy experts and judges worried about police intrusion into people’s lives. At least 50 law enforcement agencies across the United States, including the FBI and the U.S. Marshals, have been using a new radar device to see inside people’s homes. They’ve been doing it for at least two years, with no oversight, no public disclosure of the technology, and using the device without obtaining any kind of search warrant.

This issue first came to light in December of last year, during a court case where police used the device to search a man’s home before arresting him for violating his parole. Although they had an arrest warrant to bring the man in, there was no warrant to search his house. The judge presiding over the case expressed concern over the use of the radar in this case, and hinted at possible 4th amendment violations.

The use of this device without obtaining a search warrant would seem to violate the Supreme Court’s most recent interpretation of the 4th amendment. In 2001 the court ruled that police could not scan the outside of a house with thermal imaging cameras, without first obtaining a warrant. They even specifically noted that the same rules would apply radar based systems that were still under development at the time. A more recent case from 2013 forbids the police from having drug sniffing dogs sniff the outside of a person’s home without a warrant.

The technology was originally developed for use in Iraq and Afghanistan by military forces, but has made its way into the hands of police in the last 2 years. The devices have very powerful motion detection capabilities. They are even sensitive enough to pick up the very small movement of breathing. There are different models, which vary in output. Some simply detect if there is any movement on the other side of a wall, and if so how far away it is. Some more advanced models have a 3D output that shows if any people are in the house and exactly where they are located.

Perhaps the biggest threat to privacy is not the fact that these devices exist, but that police agencies kept them a secret. Until recently the court system was completely in the dark that they were being used by law enforcement to search people’s homes. Police however, argue that using the device is a matter of safety. When they need to enter someone’s home to make an arrest they can use it to see if someone is waiting for them on the other side of a door. They argue that it is so necessary to save lives that a warrant should not be required.

Do you think the police are justified in using the radar to search people’s homes without obtaining a warrant, or was it a violation of their rights? Leave your comments below.


Max Michael

Senior Writer

I’m a technology reporter located near the Innovation District of Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario.