Law enforcement track cellphones without warrants. "Warrant-less search"
Rob Houglum. We the People Monday, April 23, 2012
In August 2011 the ACLU issued official records requests to over 380 state and local law enforcement agencies and revealed that almost all of the departments that responded tracked telephones, most without warrants.
The majority of the two hundred agencies that answered engaged in some mobile phone tracking. Only a few those said they regularly seek warrants and demonstrate probable cause before tracking cellphones, according to the ACLU report.
Most law enforcement agencies stated that they track telephones to research crimes, while others claimed they use tracking only in emergencies like a missing folks 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 cellphone tracking activities. For instance, Raleigh, North Carolina, tracks masses of phones every year based primarily on invoices from telephone firms. In Wilson County, North Carolina, police obtain historic tracking info where it's "relevant and material" to an ongoing enquiry, a standard the ACLU notes is lower than possible cause.
Police in Lincoln, Nebraska, get GPS location data on phones without demonstrating probable cause. GPS location info is even more definite than cell tower location info, according to the ACLU.
Furthermore, the ACLU notes that cellphone tracking has become so common that mobile phone companies have manuals that explain to police what data the companies store, how much they charge for access to info and what's required for police to access it.
But some law enforcement agencies do seek warrants and likely cause before tracking cellphones. Police in the County of Hawaii, Hawaii, Wichita, Kansas and Lexington, Kentucky, do look for a warrant and possible cause.
The ACLU says that if "police departments can protect both public safety and privacy by meeting the warrant and probable cause requirements, then surely other agencies can as well."
The civil liberties organisation argues that mobile phone firms have made transparency worse by concealing how long they store location info. As an example, Sprint keeps tracking records for as many as two 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 maintaining 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 customers more control of how their information is employed.
The ACLU isn't alone in its concern. Members of both chambers of Congress have introduced legislation that would require law enforcement agencies to obtain a warrant before tracking telephone information. The act, called 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 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 obligation for real-time tracking, though not for historic location information."
"I assume the American public deserves and expects a degree of personal privacy," asserted Chaffetz. "We in The USA do not work on a hypothesis of guilt."
Tags: ACLU, GPS, Warrant-less search