While mostly always beneficial to our daily lives, the integration of new technology into everyday activity has also raised quite a number of legal concerns. Let’s say a business competitor of yours places a GPS tracking device on the bottom of your vehicle and keeps track of your location as you travel from place to place. In 2015, the North Carolina Business Court addressed the very issue of whether such action resulted in the trespass of personal property and invasion of privacy under North Carolina law. The Court in that case determined that it did not.
Trespass of Personal Property
Under North Carolina tort law, the mere touching of personal property by another individual is insufficient to find trespass of personal property. Rather, the touching must actually interfere with the use of the property in some way or another. The Business Court determined that affixing a tracking device to the bottom of an individual’s vehicle does not dispossess the owner of their property nor deprive the owner of their ability to use it. The ultimate determination of “interference” appears to rest on the underlying purpose of what is being interfered with. For example, the placement of a boot on a car’s wheel is an interference with the car “because the main purpose of a car is transportation, and one cannot drive around with a boot attached to the wheel of one’s car.” According to this analysis and the Business Court, the placement of a GPS on the bottom of one’s vehicle does not interfere with the use of the vehicle, does not impair the operation of the vehicle, nor does it damage the vehicle in any way.
Invasion of Privacy
The Business Court determined that there is no invasion of privacy where the information obtained is public, rather than private in nature. The underlying determination rests on the idea that a person traveling in a car on public roads has no reasonable expectation of privacy in movements from one place to another. Accordingly, the placement of a GPS device enabled to obtain information that could equally be obtained by observing the vehicle on the public roadways does not amount to invasion of privacy. Of course, the outcome could be different if the placement of the GPS successfully obtained information that would not otherwise be available to the public but for the intrusion into the place where an individual has a reasonable expectation of privacy.
Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices Act (UDTPA)
Finally, for those of you in the business context, the Court determined that that attachment of the GPS tracking device did not amount to a violation of the UDTPA because the device was attached to the individual’s private vehicle, and thus the surveillance was deemed not to be “in or affecting commerce.”
So, how would this analysis change if it were a company vehicle or a company laptop? It is crucial to note that the ultimate determination depends on the specific situation at hand, so please contact us with any questions regarding your particular situation.