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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 August 2011 the ACLU issued official records requests to over 380 state and local law enforcement agencies and found that nearly all the departments that answered tracked mobile phones, most without warrants. 

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

Most law enforcement agencies said they track phones to research crimes, while others claimed they use tracking only in emergencies like a missing persons case. Only ten agencies said they never use cellphone tracking. 

Some law enforcement agencies provided enough documentation to color a meticulous picture of telephone tracking activities. For instance, Raleigh, North Carolina, tracks hundreds of telephones every year based primarily on invoices from phone firms. In Wilson County, North Carolina, police get historic tracking data where it's "relevant and material" to a continual inquiry, a standard the ACLU notes is lower than likely cause. 

Police in Lincoln, Nebraska, obtain GPS location data on phones without demonstrating probable cause. GPS location information is far more precise than cell tower location info, according to the ACLU. 

Similarly, the ACLU observes that cellphone tracking has become so common that phone firms have manuals that explain to police what info the corporations store, how much they bill for access to information and what's required for police to access it. 

But some law enforcement agencies do seek warrants and likely cause before tracking cellphones. Police in the County of Hawaii, Hawaii, Wichita, Kansas and Lexington, Kentucky, do search for a warrant and probable cause. 

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


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

In a public communication to wireless carriers, the ACLU implores them to "stop routinely retaining data 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 purchasers more control over how their info is utilized. 

The ACLU is not alone in its concern. Members of both chambers of Congress have introduced legislation that will require law enforcement agencies to obtain a warrant before tracking cellphone information. 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 4th 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 obligation for realtime tracking, although not for historical location information." 

"I assume the American public merits and expects a degree of private privacy," said Chaffetz. "We in The United States don't work on a presumption of guilt." 
Tags: ACLU, GPS, Warrant-less search

 


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