On July 6, 2003, two Boulder residents found sophisticated global positioning system (GPS) tracking devices attached to the bottom of their cars, and then-BW Editor Pamela White says the story broke national news about federal agents being suspected of monitoring individuals’ whereabouts.
“A guy came in with a contraption he found underneath his car, fixed there by magnets,” she recalls.
The mysterious devices were found on cars belonging to a couple of outspoken animal rights activists who suggested that they were being tracked by the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Mike Nicosia, who had participated in animal-rights protests and had launched a Long Island chapter of The Coalition to Abolish the Fur Trade, was also an outspoken supporter of the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), a controversial group that was known for releasing animals from labs and destroying property of those who exploit animals. Nicosia told BW that he had been monitored by the government in the past, from phone taps to plainclothes officers following him.
Nicosia’s roommate was an even likelier target for government surveillance. Rod Coronado, who found devices under both his and his girlfriend’s car, which he often drove, was a member of the Earth First! movement and former media spokesperson for ALF. He served time for an arson attack at Michigan State University’s mink research facilities, and was the person that Earth First! activist Judy Bari was going to meet when a bomb under her car seat exploded and nearly killed her in 1990. (A federal jury later discounted the FBI’s allegation that the bomb belonged to Bari herself.)
BW took the devices to a local GPS expert who confirmed that they were indeed used to allow satellites to track a person’s whereabouts. Markings on the tracking systems were inconclusive, but the expert said they appeared to be custom-made — and pricey, at around $2,000 a pop.
The discovery of the devices raised questions about who, besides the FBI, might be tracking Nicosia and Coronado. An FBI spokesperson contacted by BW would neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation into the activists and declined to comment on the FBI’s tracking techniques.
White says the FBI spokesperson “accused us of being crazy.”
Another possible suspect was a major company that Coronado and his colleagues had been protesting, but a spokesperson from that company refused to respond to the allegation.
It turns out that the activists’ first hunch was probably correct, since subsequent national media reports confirmed that federal agents were indeed using such devices to keep track of certain individuals’ movements.
About a year ago, the Supreme Court ruled that the FBI overstepped its bounds when it placed a GPS tracking device on a vehicle without a warrant.
Once again, BW was at the front edge of a national story, this time a local discovery that foreshadowed a national debate about citizens’ Fourth-Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures. It was a chilling, early glimpse of what was to come with the government’s brazen ability to monitor what citizens are doing, especially in the post-9/11 era.