Law enforcement track cellphones without warrants. "Warrant-less search"
Rob Houglum. We the People Monday, April 23, 2012
In Aug 2011 the ACLU issued public documentation requests to over 380 state and local law enforcement agencies and discovered that virtually all the departments that replied tracked mobile phones, most without warrants.
The great majority of the two hundred agencies that replied engaged in some mobile phone tracking. Only a few those claimed they constantly seek warrants and demonstrate possible cause before tracking phones, according to the ACLU report.
Most law enforcement agencies claimed they track phones to investigate crimes, while others claimed they use tracking only in emergencies like a missing people case. Only ten agencies said they never use telephone tracking.
Some law enforcement agencies provided enough paperwork to paint a detailed picture of cellphone tracking activities. For instance, Raleigh, North Carolina, tracks hundreds of cellphones every year based on invoices from telephone companies. In Wilson County, North Carolina, police get historic tracking info where it's "relevant and material" to a continuing investigation, the standard the ACLU notes is lower than likely cause.
Police in Lincoln, Nebraska, obtain GPS location information on phones without demonstrating likely cause. GPS location info is far more accurate than cell tower location information, according to the ACLU.
Additionally, the ACLU points out that telephone tracking has gotten so common that mobile phone companies have manuals that explain to police what info the companies 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 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 requirements, then certainly other agencies can as well."
The civil liberties organisation disagrees that cellphone firms have made transparency worse by hiding how long they store location data. For instance, Sprint keeps tracking records for as many as two years and ATT maintains records from July 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
In a public letter to wireless carriers, the ACLU implores them to "stop routinely 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 public how information is being kept and give purchasers more control over how their information is used.
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 information. The act, known as 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 plenty 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 need for real-time tracking, although not for historic location information."
"I assume the American public deserves and expects a degree of personal privacy," asserted Chaffetz. "We in The United States don't work on a presumption of guilt."
Tags: ACLU, GPS, Warrant-less search