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Is it Legal to Track Employees Using GPS?

by Timesheets.com
An employer looking at a map of GPS coordinates

Managing employees has never been easier with the introduction of online time tracking. Managers no longer have to wonder where employees are or what they are doing– all information is available in real-time. Tracking location using GPS is one of the most significant features of employee tracking that employers take advantage of. This data can tell an employer exactly where an employee is working and when they are working. For instance, an employer can determine if an employee clocked in at the office, from the local Starbucks, or even from home. Employers also use GPS tracking to capture miles driven in company-owned or personal vehicles. The data collected is easy to obtain and gives employers transparency, but is it legal? 

Ronald Reagan introduced and regulated GPS tracking after the Soviet Attack on a Korean Civilian Airliner in 1983. GPS tracking ensured that airplanes didn’t accidentally cross the Soviet border and, more broadly, helped ensure peace.  Since then, GPS use has been expanded by the US government. Additionally, the government has given civilians access to GPS systems, which is why employers are able to track employee location. All of this new technological availability for employers has brought up predictable concerns about the personal privacy of their employees.

Current federal government GPS law   

Currently, the federal government does not have laws in regards to an individual’s privacy rights. There have been many legislative cases that have brought up the concern for privacy, but they still haven’t been resolved. Currently, there is only one ruling that protects civilian privacy, United States v. Antoine Jones (No. 10-1259).

In January 2012, the U.S. Supreme court ruled that law enforcement must obtain a warrant before attaching a GPS tracking device to a suspect’s car. This is in support of Amendment IV, which protects people against unreasonable search and seizure. For example, this means that an FBI agent cannot attach a tracking device to someone’s car without a warrant. Even this protection, affirmed repeatedly by the supreme court, has its flaws. Members of Congress have proposed legislation to prevent misuse of this information by law enforcement, companies, and individuals. However, as of October 2018, no comprehensive legislation on geolocation privacy has been enacted into law. There has also been no ruling of whether or not the fourth amendment protects geolocation rights. Overall, an employer is most likely able to track an employee’s location without violating privacy rights.

Current state government GPS law

Although federal law doesn’t provide a clear protection for individuals in the realm of geolocation, state governments have taken privacy rights into their own hands. Most states have implemented privacy laws, but even then, they are tricky to understand. For instance, California has a location privacy law:

“California Penal Code Section 637.7. That provision states: (a) No person or entity in this state shall use an electronic tracking device to determine the location or movement of a person. (b) This section shall not apply when the registered owner, lessor, or lessee of a vehicle has consented to the use of the electronic tracking device with respect to that vehicle. (c) This section shall not apply to the lawful use of an electronic tracking device by a law enforcement agency. (d) As used in this section, “electronic tracking device” means any device attached to a vehicle or other movable thing that reveals its location or movement by the transmission of electronic signals. (e) A violation of this section is a misdemeanor.”

California Legislative Information

In short, an employer cannot track an employee’s whereabouts without their consent. If the employer gives notice and the employee consents, it’s likely that the employer can legally track their location.

Almost every state has its own privacy regulations which can be hard to interpret. Some states allow surveillance, while some don’t allow any sort of tracking. Some states allow tracking as long as it’s only used on a company-owned vehicle. Georgia, Arkansas, Kansas, and Missouri do not have any privacy laws. States such as Delaware, Illinois, Michigan, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas and Wisconsin prohibit installing a location tracking device on a vehicle without the consent of the vehicle owner. Whatever the case is, employers should beware and understand the laws in their state. If not followed correctly, misuse of GPS tracking can lead an employer to court. 

Why is the law so confusing?

The law’s interpretation can be confusing because there is no defined term for “privacy” and what constitutes as a breach of privacy. State laws are hard to interpret because all GPS tracking situations are different. For example, it might be okay for an employer to track an employee’s vehicle while on the clock, but they cannot track the employee’s whereabouts after the employee stops working. What happens if the GPS tracking service is still on while the employee is off the clock and the employee finds out? The employee could make case stating that privacy was breached, but a certain judge may not see it as a breach of privacy if the employee gave consent.

There are multiple court cases including Supreme Court cases that have created a buzz around this topic, but unfortunately there is no clear answer as to what runs afoul of the fourth amendment and what doesn’t– this is still up to individual judges. 

What should employers do?

First, speak with your local labor board to ensure that you are following your state’s privacy laws correctly. Once you understand what you can and cannot do, create a policy at your workplace that complies with these rules. Here are some tips:

  • Be aware of issues raised by unions. Unions tend to have their own privacy rules.
  • To protect yourself and your business, provide employees with written notice about GPS tracking. Be clear to tell employees if and when they or their vehicle is being tracked.
  • Limit tracking to work hours only. Unfortunately, a lot of time tracking companies that track GPS do not stop location notifications once the employee is clocked out. This is why it’s important to invest in a time tracking service like Timesheets.com that does not track employees when they are off the clock.
  • Develop a policy that sets limits and justifications for GPS tracking. Let employees know the consequences of disabling GPS on the job if necessary. 

Customize your GPS tracking today, while staying compliant!

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David kadarishko April 15, 2021 - 3:24 am

Hi my name is David and I just got a new work van issued through the elevator company I work with and was not aware of how it was h being used. I am trying to figure out if it’s legal or illegal for the company to monitor my lunch and then asking me why am I not in the area of the client I’m scheduled to see and have plenty of time to still get there and now I’m being repremand and to what extent. I was running a little behind on my first job and I called the client to let them know that I will be running behind and the 2nd incident I was also running a bit behind schedule just due to the jobs I have throughout the day it’s impossible to be completely accurate as sometimes I’m running early to all my job’s there’s know problem but last week for the 1st time I was questioned in a rude and threatening manner that made me extremely uncomfortable. I don’t never take breaks or lunches and this unusual situation I ended up in turned into making me feel like a lie and a cheat feeling almost threatened. Please explain to me rights when it comes to this and my rights and how to handle it accordingly without being terminated for informing whoever calls me regarding this type of situation if it were to become an issue and happen again. Thank you, David in Vancouver Bc
“we were never told or talked to about anything involving being monitored by gps including any policy. Therefore I’m forced to educate myself and share with my coworkers as needed to be on a per case situation.

Lindsay Sommers April 16, 2021 - 1:16 pm

Hi David. GPS laws on all levels are very confusing because they vary so much. The law in itself isn’t very clear, which is why most people have to take their specific cases to law experts. That being said, it would be wise that you speak to an employment attorney or with your local labor board regarding the legality of your specific situation.

Jane May 16, 2021 - 2:17 pm

If an employer pays a phone stipend to an employee living in Florida who uses a personal phone to conduct business related activities, does the employer have the legal right to gps track them?

Lindsay Sommers May 18, 2021 - 5:52 pm

That’s a question that you’d need to ask legal counsel.


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