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The growing use of the gadgets to follow people raises questions about privacy and legality.

New York Times

Only yesterday it was the exotic stuff of spy shows: Flip on a computer and track the enemy's speeding car.

But today, anyone with $300 can compete with Jack Bauer. Online, and soon in big-box stores, you can buy a device no bigger than a cigarette pack, attach it to a car without the driver's knowledge and watch the vehicle's travels - and stops - at home on your laptop.

Tens of thousands of Americans are already doing just that, with little oversight, for purposes as seemingly benign as tracking an elderly parent with dementia or a risky teenage driver, or as legally and ethically charged as spying on a spouse or an employee - or for outright criminal stalking.

The advent of Global Positioning System tracking devices has been a boon to law enforcement, making it easier and safer, for example, for agents to link drug dealers to kingpins.

On Jan. 23, in a decision seen as a first step toward setting boundaries for law enforcement, the Supreme Court held that under the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, placing a GPS tracker on a vehicle is a search. Police departments around the country say they will be more likely to seek judicial approval before using the devices, if they were not already doing so.

Still, sales of GPS trackers to employers and individuals, for a multitude of largely unregulated uses, are growing fast, raising new questions about privacy and a legal system that has not kept pace with technology.

"To have this as a routine tool strikes me as pretty chilling," said Jonathan Zittrain, professor of law and computer science at Harvard University.

Sales of GPS trackers to private individuals may have already surpassed more than 100,000 per year, some experts believe. The marketing is just getting started.

"Selling a tracking device is similar to selling a firearm: You don't ask what they are going to use it for, and what they do with it is entirely out of our control," said Brad Borst, the owner of Rocky Mountain Tracking in Fort Collins, Colo.