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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 documentation requests to over 380 state and local law enforcement agencies and discovered that almost all the departments that answered tracked telephones, most without warrants. 

The majority of the 200 agencies that replied engaged in some cellphone tracking. Only a few those claimed they constantly seek warrants and demonstrate probable cause before tracking mobile phones, according to the ACLU report

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

Some law enforcement agencies provided enough documentation to color a meticulous picture of cellphone tracking activities. For instance, Raleigh, North Carolina, tracks hundreds of phones per year based primarily on invoices from telephone companies. 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, get GPS location info on telephones without demonstrating likely cause. GPS location data is rather more accurate than cell tower location information, according to the ACLU. 

Additionally, the ACLU observes that telephone tracking is becoming so common that phone firms have manuals that explain to police what information the firms store, how much they require payment for access to information and what's required for police to access it. 

However , some law enforcement agencies do seek warrants and possible cause before tracking cellphones. Police in the County of Hawaii, Hawaii, Wichita, Kansas and Lexington, Kentucky, do seek a warrant and possible 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 organization argues that phone firms have made transparency worse by concealing how long they store location information. As an example, Sprint keeps tracking records for as many as 2 years and ATT maintains records from July 2008, according to the U.S. Department 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 side-product of how mobile technology works," and asks them to make public how info is being kept and give shoppers more control of 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 telephone info. The act, known as 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 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 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 America do not work on a hypothesis of guilt." 
Tags: ACLU, GPS, Warrant-less search

 

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