In Aug 2011 the ACLU issued public records requests to over 380 state and local law enforcement agencies and revealed that nearly all the departments that responded tracked mobile phones, most without warrants.
The vast majority of the 200 agencies that responded engaged in some cellphone tracking. Only a handful of those claimed they regularly seek warrants and demonstrate possible cause before tracking cellphones, according to the ACLU report.
Most law enforcement agencies stated that they track telephones to research crimes, while others claimed they use tracking only in emergencies like a missing persons case. Only 10 agencies stated that they never use mobile phone tracking.
Some law enforcement agencies provided enough documentation to color a detailed image of cellphone tracking activities. As an example, Raleigh, North Carolina, tracks hundreds of phones per year primarily based on invoices from telephone corporations. In Wilson County, North Carolina, police obtain historical tracking info where it's "relevant and material" to an ongoing inquiry, a standard the ACLU notes is lower than possible cause.
Police in Lincoln, Nebraska, get GPS location info on phones without demonstrating probable cause. GPS location info is rather more definite than cell tower location information, according to the ACLU.
Furthermore, the ACLU observes that telephone tracking has become so common that mobile phone companies have manuals that explain to police what info the companies store, how much they require payment for access to information and what's required for police to access it.
Nonetheless some law enforcement agencies do seek warrants and probable cause before tracking mobile phones. Police in the County of Hawaii, Hawaii, Wichita, Kansas and Lexington, Kentucky, do seek a warrant and likely cause.
The ACLU announces that if "police departments can protect both public safety and privacy by meeting the warrant and likely cause needs, then certainly other agencies can as well."
The civil liberties organization argues that mobile phone companies have made transparency worse by hiding how long they store location information. For example, Run 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 typically retaining information 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 public how information is being kept and give purchasers more control over how their information is employed.
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 telephone information. The act, called the Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance ( GPS ) Act, has bipartisan support but hasn't yet moved out of committee.
"Law enforcement, in my mind, has overstepped its bounds and thrown out plenty of our Fourth Amendment rights," claimed 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 requirement for real-time tracking, though not for historical location information."
"I think the American public deserves and expects a degree of private privacy," announced Chaffetz. "We in The USA don't work on a hypothesis of guilt."
Tags: ACLU, GPS, Warrant-less search