In Aug 2011 the ACLU issued public records requests to over 380 state and local law enforcement agencies and found that nearly all of the departments that replied tracked cellphones, most without warrants.
The majority of the two hundred agencies that replied engaged in some cellphone tracking. Only a handful of those said they frequently seek warrants and demonstrate likely cause before tracking mobile phones, according to the ACLU report.
Most law enforcement agencies said they track phones to investigate crimes, while others claimed they use tracking only in emergencies like a missing people case. Only ten agencies stated that they never use cellphone tracking.
Some law enforcement agencies provided enough paperwork to color a detailed picture of cellphone tracking activities. As an example, Raleigh, North Carolina, tracks hundreds of telephones a year based primarily on invoices from telephone companies. In Wilson County, North Carolina, police get historic tracking info where it's "relevant and material" to an ongoing inquiry, a standard the ACLU notes is lower than likely cause.
Police in Lincoln, Nebraska, get GPS location data on telephones without demonstrating possible cause. GPS location info is far more accurate than cell tower location info, according to the ACLU.
Furthermore, the ACLU notes that cellphone tracking has gotten so common that phone corporations have manuals that explain to police what info the companies store, how much they charge for access to info and what's needed for police to access it.
But 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 claims that if "police departments can protect both public safety and privacy by meeting the warrant and possible cause wants, then certainly other agencies can as well."
The civil freedoms organization disagrees that cellphone firms have made transparency worse by hiding how long they store location information. For instance, Run keeps tracking records for as many as 2 years and ATT maintains records from July 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
In a public letter to wireless carriers, the ACLU implores them to "stop routinely keeping data about your customers' location history that you should happen to collect as a side-effect of how mobile technology works," and asks them to disclose how information is being kept and give purchasers more control of 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 telephone data. The act, called the Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance ( GPS ) Act, has bipartisan support but has not yet moved out of council.
"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 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, although not for historical location information."
"I think the American public merits and expects a degree of personal privacy," announced Chaffetz. "We in The United States do not work on a hypothesis of guilt."
Tags: ACLU, GPS, Warrant-less search