Law enforcement track cellphones without warrants. "Warrant-less search"
Rob Houglum. We the People Monday, April 23, 2012
In August 2011 the ACLU issued official records requests to over 380 state and local law enforcement agencies and revealed that virtually all of the departments that responded tracked telephones, most without warrants.
The great majority of the two hundred agencies that responded engaged in some mobile phone tracking. Only a few those said they regularly 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 said they never use mobile phone tracking.
Some law enforcement agencies provided enough documentation to color a detailed picture of cellphone tracking activities. For instance, Raleigh, North Carolina, tracks loads of telephones a year based on invoices from telephone companies. In Wilson County, North Carolina, police get historic tracking information where it's "relevant and material" to a continuing enquiry, the standard the ACLU notes is lower than likely cause.
Police in Lincoln, Nebraska, obtain GPS location info on telephones without demonstrating likely cause. GPS location data is rather more accurate than cell tower location info, according to the ACLU.
Similarly, the ACLU points out that telephone tracking has become so common that mobile phone firms have manuals that explain to police what info the firms store, how much they charge for access to information and what's required for police to access it.
Nonetheless some law enforcement agencies do seek warrants and likely cause before tracking mobile phones. Police in the County of Hawaii, Hawaii, Wichita, Kansas and Lexington, Kentucky, do look for a warrant and possible cause.
The ACLU says that if "police departments can protect both public safety and privacy by meeting the warrant and probable cause wants, then surely other agencies can as well."
The civil liberties organization argues that phone corporations have made transparency worse by concealing how long they store location info. For instance, Run keeps tracking records for as many as 2 years 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 customarily maintaining data about your customers' location history that you should happen to collect as a side-effect of how mobile technology works," and asks them to make clear how info is being kept and give shoppers more control over how their info is utilized.
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 mobile phone info. 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 plenty of our Fourth Modification rights," related 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, although not for historic location information."
"I assume the American public merits and expects a degree of private privacy," said Chaffetz. "We in America don't work on a hypothesis of guilt."
Tags: ACLU, GPS, Warrant-less search