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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 virtually all the departments that answered tracked telephones, most without warrants. 

The great majority of the 2 hundred agencies that answered engaged in some mobile phone tracking. Only a few those stated that they frequently seek warrants and demonstrate likely cause before tracking cellphones, according to the ACLU report

Most law enforcement agencies claimed they track telephones to investigate crimes, while others claimed they use tracking only in emergencies like a missing folks case. Only 10 agencies asserted they never use telephone tracking. 

Some law enforcement agencies provided enough documentation to paint a meticulous image of cellphone tracking activities. For example, Raleigh, North Carolina, tracks hundreds of telephones a year based on invoices from phone companies. In Wilson County, North Carolina, police obtain historic tracking info where it's "relevant and material" to a continual enquiry, a standard the ACLU notes is lower than probable cause. 

Police in Lincoln, Nebraska, obtain GPS location info on telephones without demonstrating possible cause. GPS location info is far more definite than cell tower location info, according to the ACLU. 

Furthermore, the ACLU points out that telephone tracking is becoming so common that phone companies have manuals that explain to police what information 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 likely cause before tracking phones. Police in the County of Hawaii, Hawaii, Wichita, Kansas and Lexington, Kentucky, do look for a warrant and possible cause. 

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


The civil freedoms organization disagrees that phone companies have made transparency worse by hiding how long they store location data. For example, 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 a public communication to wireless carriers, the ACLU implores them to "stop routinely maintaining info about your customers' location history that you happen to collect as a side-product of how mobile technology works," and asks them to disclose how info is being kept and give purchasers more control of how their info is employed. 

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 telephone information. The act, called the Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance ( GPS ) Act, has bipartisan support but has not yet moved out of committee. 

"Law enforcement, in my mind, has overstepped its bounds and thrown out many of our Fourth Change 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 real-time tracking, though not for historic location information." 

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

 


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