Law enforcement track cellphones without warrants. "Warrant-less search"
Rob Houglum. We the People Monday, April 23, 2012
In August 2011 the ACLU issued public documentation requests to over 380 state and local law enforcement agencies and revealed that almost all of the departments that replied tracked cellphones, most without warrants.
The majority of the two hundred agencies that responded engaged in some cellphone 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 claimed they track telephones to research crimes, while others stated that they use tracking only in emergencies like a missing persons case. Only 10 agencies stated that they never use cellphone tracking.
Some law enforcement agencies provided enough paperwork to paint an in-depth image of phone tracking activities. For instance, Raleigh, North Carolina, tracks loads of phones every year based on invoices from telephone firms. In Wilson County, North Carolina, police obtain historical tracking info where it's "relevant and material" to an ongoing enquiry, a standard the ACLU notes is lower than possible cause.
Police in Lincoln, Nebraska, obtain GPS location information on phones without demonstrating probable cause. GPS location information is rather more accurate than cell tower location info, according to the ACLU.
Furthermore, the ACLU notes that telephone tracking has become so common that mobile phone firms have manuals that explain to police what data the companies 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 possible cause before tracking mobile phones. Police in the County of Hawaii, Hawaii, Wichita, Kansas and Lexington, Kentucky, do seek a warrant and probable cause.
The ACLU announces that if "police departments can protect both public safety and privacy by meeting the warrant and likely cause requirements, then certainly other agencies can as well."
The civil freedoms organisation disagrees that phone companies have made transparency worse by hiding how long they store location info. For instance, Run keeps tracking records for as many as 24 months 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 keeping info about your customers' location history that you happen to collect as a byproduct of how mobile technology works," and asks them to make clear how information 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 cellphone information. The act, known as the Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance ( GPS ) Act, has bipartisan support but hasn't yet moved out of council.
"Law enforcement, in my mind, has overstepped its bounds and thrown out many of our 4th Amendment 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, though not for historic location information."
"I think 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