Law enforcement track cellphones without warrants. "Warrant-less search"
Rob Houglum. We the People Monday, April 23, 2012
In August 2011 the ACLU issued public records requests to over 380 state and local law enforcement agencies and revealed that almost all the departments that replied tracked telephones, most without warrants.
The vast majority of the 200 agencies that answered engaged in some mobile phone tracking. Only a few those claimed they frequently seek warrants and demonstrate likely cause before tracking cellphones, according to the ACLU report.
Most law enforcement agencies said they track phones to investigate crimes, while others stated that they use tracking only in emergencies like a missing folks case. Only 10 agencies said they never use mobile phone tracking.
Some law enforcement agencies provided enough documentation to paint a detailed image of phone tracking activities. For example, Raleigh, North Carolina, tracks hundreds of telephones every year based on invoices from phone firms. In Wilson County, North Carolina, police get historical tracking data where it's "relevant and material" to an ongoing enquiry, a standard the ACLU notes is lower than possible cause.
Police in Lincoln, Nebraska, obtain GPS location information on telephones without demonstrating probable cause. GPS location data is even more precise than cell tower location information, according to the ACLU.
Similarly, the ACLU points out that telephone tracking has gotten so common that phone companies have manuals that explain to police what data the corporations store, how much they bill for access to data and what's required for police to access it.
But some law enforcement agencies do seek warrants and possible cause before tracking phones. Police in the County of Hawaii, Hawaii, Wichita, Kansas and Lexington, Kentucky, do search for 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 wants, then certainly other agencies can as well."
The civil liberties organization argues that phone companies have made transparency worse by hiding how long they store location info. For example, Sprint keeps tracking records for as much as two years 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 customarily retaining info about your customers' location history that you 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 info 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 obtain a warrant before tracking mobile phone data. The act, known as the Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance ( GPS ) Act, has bipartisan support but hasn't yet moved out of council.
"Law enforcement, in my mind, has overstepped its bounds and thrown out many of our 4th Change 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, but not for historic location information."
"I believe the American public deserves and expects a degree of personal privacy," asserted Chaffetz. "We in The United States don't work on a hypothesis of guilt."
Tags: ACLU, GPS, Warrant-less search