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 found that nearly all the departments that responded tracked mobile phones, most without warrants.
The vast majority of the 200 agencies that answered engaged in some cellphone tracking. Only a few those said they constantly seek warrants and demonstrate possible cause before tracking cellphones, according to the ACLU report.
Most law enforcement agencies said they track phones to analyze crimes, while others claimed they use tracking only in emergencies like a missing folks case. Only ten agencies stated that they never use telephone tracking.
Some law enforcement agencies provided enough paperwork to color an in-depth image of cellphone tracking activities. For instance, Raleigh, North Carolina, tracks masses of phones per year based on invoices from telephone companies. In Wilson County, North Carolina, police obtain historic tracking information where it's "relevant and material" to an ongoing investigation, the standard the ACLU notes is lower than probable cause.
Police in Lincoln, Nebraska, get GPS location information on telephones without demonstrating likely cause. GPS location information is even more definite than cell tower location information, according to the ACLU.
Similarly, the ACLU observes that telephone tracking is becoming so common that phone companies have manuals that explain to police what information the companies store, how much they bill for access to information and what's needed for police to access it.
Nonetheless some law enforcement agencies do seek warrants and probable 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 probable cause needs, then certainly other agencies can as well."
The civil liberties organization argues that mobile phone firms have made transparency worse by hiding how long they store location data. As an example, Sprint 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 communication to wireless carriers, the ACLU implores them to "stop routinely 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 make clear how information is being kept and give purchasers more control of how their information is utilized.
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 cellphone info. The act, called 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 lots of our 4th Change rights," said Utah Republican Rep. Jason Chaffetz.
Another effort is being manufactured 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 historical location information."
"I assume the American public deserves and expects a degree of personal privacy," said Chaffetz. "We in America do not work on a presumption of guilt."
Tags: ACLU, GPS, Warrant-less search