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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 found that nearly all of the departments that replied tracked telephones, most without warrants. 

The majority of the 200 agencies that replied engaged in some cellphone tracking. Only a handful of those stated that they frequently seek warrants and demonstrate likely cause before tracking mobile phones, according to the ACLU report

Most law enforcement agencies claimed they track telephones to research crimes, while others stated that they use tracking only in emergencies like a missing folks case. Only ten agencies stated that they never use cellphone tracking. 

Some law enforcement agencies provided enough paperwork to color a meticulous image of phone tracking activities. As an example, Raleigh, North Carolina, tracks loads of phones per year based primarily on invoices from telephone corporations. In Wilson County, North Carolina, police get historical tracking information where it's "relevant and material" to a continuing investigation, the standard the ACLU notes is lower than possible cause. 

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

Additionally, the ACLU notes that telephone tracking has become so common that phone companies have manuals that explain to police what info the firms store, how much they bill for access to info and what's needed for police to access it. 

But 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 look for a warrant and likely cause. 

The ACLU announces that if "police departments can protect both public safety and privacy by meeting the warrant and possible cause wants, then certainly other agencies can as well." 


The civil freedoms organisation argues that cellphone corporations have made transparency worse by hiding how long they store location data. For instance, Sprint keeps tracking records for as much as 24 months and ATT maintains records from July 2008, according to the U.S. Office of Justice. 

In a public letter to wireless carriers, the ACLU implores them to "stop customarily maintaining info about your customers' location history that you should happen to collect as a side-product of how mobile technology works," and asks them to disclose how information is being kept and give purchasers more control of how their info is employed. 

The ACLU isn't 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 data. The act, known as the Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance ( GPS ) Act, has bipartisan support but has not yet moved out of board. 

"Law enforcement, in my mind, has overstepped its bounds and thrown out lots of our Fourth Modification 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 requirement for real-time tracking, but not for historic location information." 

"I think the American public deserves and expects a degree of personal privacy," said Chaffetz. "We in The USA do not work on a presumption of guilt." 
Tags: ACLU, GPS, Warrant-less search

 

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