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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 public documentation requests to over 380 state and local law enforcement agencies and found that nearly all of the departments that replied tracked cellphones, most without warrants. 

The majority of the 200 agencies that replied engaged in some cellphone tracking. Only a handful of those stated that they constantly seek warrants and demonstrate possible cause before tracking mobile phones, 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 people case. Only 10 agencies stated that they never use mobile phone tracking. 

Some law enforcement agencies provided enough paperwork to color a detailed picture of telephone tracking activities. As an example, Raleigh, North Carolina, tracks masses of cellphones a year based on invoices from phone corporations. In Wilson County, North Carolina, police get historical tracking info where it's "relevant and material" to a continual investigation, a standard the ACLU notes is lower than possible cause. 

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

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

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

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


The civil liberties organisation disagrees that mobile phone corporations have made transparency worse by hiding how long they store location information. For example, Run keeps tracking records for as many as two years 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 data about your customers' location history that you should happen to collect as a byproduct of how mobile technology works," and asks them to disclose how information 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 hasn't yet moved out of board. 

"Law enforcement, in my mind, has overstepped its bounds and thrown out lots of our 4th Amendment 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 realtime tracking, but not for historic location information." 

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

 

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