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

warrant-less search

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

The great majority of the 2 hundred agencies that responded engaged in some cellphone tracking. Only a handful of those said they constantly seek warrants and demonstrate probable cause before tracking mobile phones, according to the ACLU report

Most law enforcement agencies said they track phones to research crimes, while others said they use tracking only in emergencies like a missing folks case. Only ten agencies said they never use mobile phone tracking. 

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

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

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

But some law enforcement agencies do seek warrants and probable cause before tracking cellphones. Police in the County of Hawaii, Hawaii, Wichita, Kansas and Lexington, Kentucky, do search for a warrant and probable cause. 

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


The civil freedoms organization argues that cellphone companies have made transparency worse by hiding how long they store location information. For example, Run 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 a public communication to wireless carriers, the ACLU implores them to "stop typically retaining info about your customers' location history that you happen 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 information is used. 

The ACLU isn't alone in its concern. Members of both chambers of Congress have introduced legislation that will need law enforcement agencies to get 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 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 historical location information." 

"I believe 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