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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 public records requests to over 380 state and local law enforcement agencies and revealed that virtually all of the departments that responded tracked cellphones, most without warrants. 

The majority of the two hundred agencies that responded engaged in some mobile phone tracking. Only a few those claimed they regularly seek warrants and demonstrate likely cause before tracking cellphones, according to the ACLU report

Most law enforcement agencies stated that they track telephones to research crimes, while others said they use tracking only in emergencies like a missing persons case. Only 10 agencies said they never use telephone tracking. 

Some law enforcement agencies provided enough documentation to paint an in-depth image of phone tracking activities. As an example, Raleigh, North Carolina, tracks loads of cellphones every year based on invoices from phone firms. In Wilson County, North Carolina, police get historical tracking information where it's "relevant and material" to a continual investigation, a standard the ACLU notes is lower than probable cause. 

Police in Lincoln, Nebraska, get GPS location data on phones without demonstrating likely cause. GPS location info is far more precise than cell tower location info, according to the ACLU. 

Similarly, the ACLU observes that cellphone tracking is becoming so common that cellphone 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 mobile phones. Police in the County of Hawaii, Hawaii, Wichita, Kansas and Lexington, Kentucky, do seek a warrant and likely cause. 

The ACLU says 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 organization disagrees that phone firms have made transparency worse by concealing how long they store location data. For instance, 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 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 side-effect of how mobile technology works," and asks them to disclose 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 get a warrant before tracking mobile phone information. The act, called the Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance ( GPS ) Act, has bipartisan support but hasn't 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 need for real time tracking, though not for historic location information." 

"I assume 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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