Law enforcement track cellphones without warrants. "Warrant-less search"

warrant-less search

In Aug 2011 the ACLU issued public records requests to over 380 state and local law enforcement agencies and revealed that almost all of the departments that responded tracked cellphones, most without warrants. 

The vast majority of the 200 agencies that answered engaged in some mobile phone tracking. Only a handful of those claimed they constantly seek warrants and demonstrate possible cause before tracking phones, according to the ACLU report

Most law enforcement agencies claimed they track telephones to analyze crimes, while others stated that they use tracking only in emergencies like a missing folks case. Only 10 agencies stated that they never use cellphone tracking. 

Some law enforcement agencies provided enough documentation to paint an in-depth image of phone tracking activities. For example, Raleigh, North Carolina, tracks loads of cellphones a year based primarily on invoices from telephone firms. In Wilson County, North Carolina, police obtain historic tracking data where it's "relevant and material" to a continuing inquiry, a standard the ACLU notes is lower than possible cause. 

Police in Lincoln, Nebraska, get GPS location data on phones without demonstrating probable cause. GPS location info is even more definite than cell tower location info, according to the ACLU. 

Additionally, the ACLU observes that cellphone tracking has gotten so common that mobile phone corporations have manuals that explain to police what info the firms store, how much they bill for access to information and what's required for police to access it. 

Nonetheless 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 search 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 requirements, then surely other agencies can as well." 


The civil liberties organisation disagrees that cellphone firms have made transparency worse by hiding how long they store location information. For instance, Run keeps tracking records for as much as two years and ATT maintains records from July 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. 

In an open letter to wireless carriers, the ACLU implores them to "stop routinely keeping information about your customers' location history that you chance to collect as a side-product of how mobile technology works," and asks them to make clear how info is being kept and give customers 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 require law enforcement agencies to get a warrant before tracking mobile phone information. The act, called 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 lots of our 4th Modification rights," claimed 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, but not for historic location information." 

"I assume the American public merits 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