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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 virtually all the departments that answered tracked cellphones, most without warrants. 

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

Most law enforcement agencies stated that they track phones to analyze crimes, while others stated that 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 color a detailed picture of phone tracking activities. As an example, Raleigh, North Carolina, tracks loads of telephones per year based primarily on invoices from telephone firms. In Wilson County, North Carolina, police obtain historical tracking data where it's "relevant and material" to a continuing investigation, a standard the ACLU notes is lower than probable cause. 

Police in Lincoln, Nebraska, obtain GPS location information on telephones without demonstrating likely cause. GPS location data is far more accurate than cell tower location information, according to the ACLU. 

Furthermore, the ACLU points out that telephone tracking has gotten so common that cellphone corporations have manuals that explain to police what data the companies store, how much they require payment for access to information and what's required for police to access it. 

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

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


The civil liberties organisation disagrees that mobile phone companies have made transparency worse by hiding how long they store location information. For example, Sprint keeps tracking records for as much as 2 years and ATT maintains records from July 2008, according to the U.S. Dept of Justice. 

In an open letter to wireless carriers, the ACLU implores them to "stop typically retaining information about your customers' location history that you chance to collect as a byproduct of how mobile technology works," and asks them to make clear how info is being kept and give shoppers 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 get a warrant before tracking telephone info. 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 4th Amendment rights," related Utah Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz. 

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

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

 

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