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Law enforcement track cellphones without warrants. "Warrant-less search"
Rob Houglum. We the People Monday, April 23, 2012

warrant-less search

In Aug 2011 the ACLU issued public documentation requests to over 380 state and local law enforcement agencies and discovered that virtually all of the departments that replied tracked mobile phones, most without warrants. 

The vast majority of the 2 hundred agencies that responded engaged in some mobile phone tracking. Only a few those said they frequently seek warrants and demonstrate possible cause before tracking phones, according to the ACLU report

Most law enforcement agencies stated that they track telephones to analyze crimes, while others stated that they use tracking only in emergencies like a missing people case. Only ten agencies said they never use mobile phone tracking. 

Some law enforcement agencies provided enough documentation to paint an in-depth image of telephone tracking activities. For instance, Raleigh, North Carolina, tracks masses of phones a year based primarily on invoices from telephone firms. In Wilson County, North Carolina, police get historical tracking data where it's "relevant and material" to a continual investigation, the standard the ACLU notes is lower than probable cause. 

Police in Lincoln, Nebraska, get GPS location information on phones without demonstrating probable cause. GPS location info is far more accurate than cell tower location info, according to the ACLU. 

Furthermore, the ACLU points out that cellphone tracking is becoming so common that cellphone corporations have manuals that explain to police what info the companies store, how much they require payment for access to information and what's needed for police to access it. 

However , some law enforcement agencies do seek warrants and probable cause before tracking cellphones. Police in the County of Hawaii, Hawaii, Wichita, Kansas and Lexington, Kentucky, do seek a warrant and probable cause. 

The ACLU says that if "police departments can protect both public safety and privacy by meeting the warrant and possible cause needs, then certainly other agencies can as well." 


The civil liberties organization argues that cellphone corporations have made transparency worse by hiding how long they store location information. As an example, Run keeps tracking records for as much as two years and ATT maintains records from July 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. 

In an open letter to wireless carriers, the ACLU implores them to "stop customarily maintaining data about your customers' location history that you happen to collect as a side-effect of how mobile technology works," and asks them to disclose how info is being kept and give customers more control over how their information is employed. 

The ACLU is not alone in its concern. Members of both chambers of Congress have introduced legislation that will require law enforcement agencies to obtain a warrant before tracking mobile phone information. The act, known as the Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance ( GPS ) Act, has bipartisan support but hasn't yet moved out of committee. 

"Law enforcement, in my mind, has overstepped its bounds and thrown out plenty of our 4th Amendment rights," claimed Utah Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz. 

Another effort is being made by Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, to update the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act ( ECPA ), which includes "a warrant obligation for real-time tracking, though not for historical location information." 

"I believe the American public merits and expects a degree of private privacy," asserted Chaffetz. "We in The United States do not work on a presumption of guilt." 
Tags: ACLU, GPS, Warrant-less search

 


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