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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 August 2011 the ACLU issued public documentation requests to over 380 state and local law enforcement agencies and discovered that almost all of the departments that responded tracked cellphones, most without warrants. 

The vast majority of the two hundred agencies that replied engaged in some cellphone tracking. Only a few those stated that they frequently seek warrants and demonstrate likely cause before tracking cellphones, according to the ACLU report

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

Some law enforcement agencies provided enough paperwork to paint a detailed image of phone tracking activities. For example, Raleigh, North Carolina, tracks loads of cellphones a year based on invoices from phone corporations. In Wilson County, North Carolina, police get historical tracking data where it's "relevant and material" to a continuing inquiry, a standard the ACLU notes is lower than likely cause. 

Police in Lincoln, Nebraska, obtain GPS location information on phones without demonstrating probable cause. GPS location information is even more definite than cell tower location information, according to the ACLU. 

Additionally, the ACLU points out that cellphone tracking has gotten so common that cellphone companies have manuals that explain to police what data the corporations store, how much they charge for access to data and what's needed for police to access it. 

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

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


The civil liberties organisation argues that phone corporations have made transparency worse by hiding how long they store location data. For example, Run keeps tracking records for as many as 24 months and ATT maintains records from July 2008, according to the U.S. Dept of Justice. 

In a public communication to wireless carriers, the ACLU implores them to "stop typically retaining data about your customers' location history that you chance to collect as a side-effect of how mobile technology works," and asks them to disclose how information is being kept and give shoppers more control over how their info is utilized. 

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

"Law enforcement, in my mind, has overstepped its bounds and thrown out many of our Fourth Modification rights," said 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 think the American public deserves and expects a degree of personal privacy," said Chaffetz. "We in America do not work on a hypothesis of guilt." 
Tags: ACLU, GPS, Warrant-less search

 

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