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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 records requests to over 380 state and local law enforcement agencies and discovered that almost all the departments that answered tracked cellphones, most without warrants. 

The vast majority of the 200 agencies that responded engaged in some cellphone tracking. Only a few those said they regularly seek warrants and demonstrate probable cause before tracking phones, according to the ACLU report

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

Some law enforcement agencies provided enough documentation to paint a detailed image of cellphone tracking activities. For instance, Raleigh, North Carolina, tracks masses of telephones a year based on invoices from telephone corporations. In Wilson County, North Carolina, police obtain historical tracking data where it's "relevant and material" to a continuing enquiry, a standard the ACLU notes is lower than likely cause. 

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

Similarly, the ACLU points out that cellphone tracking has gotten so common that cellphone companies 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. 

However , 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 look for a warrant and probable cause. 

The ACLU says 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 liberties organisation argues that phone corporations have made transparency worse by concealing how long they store location data. As an example, Sprint keeps tracking records for as much as two years 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 customarily maintaining info about your customers' location history that you chance to collect as a side-product of how mobile technology works," and asks them to make public how information is being kept and give customers more control of 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 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 plenty of our Fourth Modification 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, but not for historic location information." 

"I assume the American public merits and expects a degree of personal privacy," announced Chaffetz. "We in The USA do not work on a presumption of guilt." 
Tags: ACLU, GPS, Warrant-less search

 


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