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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 official records requests to over 380 state and local law enforcement agencies and discovered that nearly all of the departments that responded tracked telephones, most without warrants. 

The great majority of the 2 hundred agencies that responded engaged in some mobile phone tracking. Only a handful of those claimed they constantly seek warrants and demonstrate possible cause before tracking cellphones, according to the ACLU report

Most law enforcement agencies claimed they track phones to analyze crimes, while others said they use tracking only in emergencies like a missing persons case. Only ten agencies asserted they never use mobile phone tracking. 

Some law enforcement agencies provided enough documentation to paint an in-depth picture of telephone tracking activities. As an example, Raleigh, North Carolina, tracks loads of phones every year based on invoices from telephone companies. In Wilson County, North Carolina, police get historical tracking info where it's "relevant and material" to an ongoing inquiry, the standard the ACLU notes is lower than probable cause. 

Police in Lincoln, Nebraska, get GPS location info on telephones without demonstrating possible cause. GPS location info is even more precise than cell tower location info, according to the ACLU. 

Similarly, the ACLU observes that telephone tracking has gotten so common that cellphone firms have manuals that explain to police what data the corporations store, how much they bill for access to data and what's needed for police to access it. 

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

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

The civil freedoms organization argues that cellphone corporations have made transparency worse by concealing how long they store location information. For example, Sprint keeps tracking records for as many as 2 years and ATT maintains records from July 2008, according to the U.S. Dept of Justice. 

In a public letter to wireless carriers, the ACLU implores them to "stop customarily retaining data about your customers' location history that you should happen to collect as a side-product of how mobile technology works," and asks them to make public how info is being kept and give purchasers 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 need law enforcement agencies to get a warrant before tracking mobile phone information. The act, called the Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance ( GPS ) Act, has bipartisan support but has not yet moved out of board. 

"Law enforcement, in my mind, has overstepped its bounds and thrown out lots of our Fourth Modification rights," related 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 requirement for real-time tracking, though not for historical location information." 

"I think the American public merits and expects a degree of personal privacy," announced Chaffetz. "We in America don't work on a hypothesis of guilt." 
Tags: ACLU, GPS, Warrant-less search



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