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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 of the departments that answered tracked cellphones, most without warrants. 

The majority of the two hundred agencies that responded engaged in some mobile phone tracking. Only a handful of those said 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 analyze crimes, while others said they use tracking only in emergencies like a missing folks case. Only ten agencies asserted they never use cellphone tracking. 

Some law enforcement agencies provided enough paperwork to paint a detailed picture of phone tracking activities. For instance, Raleigh, North Carolina, tracks hundreds of cellphones per year based primarily on invoices from phone corporations. In Wilson County, North Carolina, police get historical tracking data where it's "relevant and material" to a continual investigation, a standard the ACLU notes is lower than possible cause. 

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

Additionally, the ACLU points out that cellphone tracking has gotten so common that phone companies have manuals that explain to police what info the corporations store, how much they charge for access to information and what's needed for police to access it. 

However , 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 likely cause. 

The ACLU says that if "police departments can protect both public safety and privacy by meeting the warrant and likely cause requirements, then surely other agencies can as well." 


The civil liberties organisation disagrees that mobile phone firms have made transparency worse by concealing how long they store location info. For instance, Sprint keeps tracking records for as much as 2 years and ATT maintains records from July 2008, according to the U.S. Dept of Justice. 

In an open letter to wireless carriers, the ACLU implores them to "stop routinely maintaining information about your customers' location history that you should happen to collect as a side-effect of how mobile technology works," and asks them to disclose how info 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 need law enforcement agencies to obtain a warrant before tracking mobile phone info. 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 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 need for realtime tracking, but not for historical location information." 

"I believe the American public merits and expects a degree of personal privacy," announced Chaffetz. "We in The United States do not work on a presumption of guilt." 
Tags: ACLU, GPS, Warrant-less search

 

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