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

warrant-less search

In August 2011 the ACLU issued public documentation requests to over 380 state and local law enforcement agencies and revealed that almost all the departments that responded tracked mobile phones, most without warrants. 

The vast majority of the 200 agencies that replied engaged in some mobile phone tracking. Only a few those claimed they frequently seek warrants and demonstrate likely cause before tracking cellphones, according to the ACLU report

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

Some law enforcement agencies provided enough paperwork to color an in-depth image of phone tracking activities. As an example, Raleigh, North Carolina, tracks hundreds of phones per year based primarily on invoices from telephone corporations. In Wilson County, North Carolina, police obtain historical tracking information where it's "relevant and material" to a continual investigation, a standard the ACLU notes is lower than possible cause. 

Police in Lincoln, Nebraska, get GPS location data on telephones without demonstrating possible cause. GPS location information is far more precise than cell tower location information, according to the ACLU. 

Similarly, the ACLU notes that telephone tracking has become so common that mobile phone firms have manuals that explain to police what information the firms store, how much they charge for access to information and what's needed for police to access it. 

However , some law enforcement agencies do seek warrants and likely cause before tracking mobile phones. Police in the County of Hawaii, Hawaii, Wichita, Kansas and Lexington, Kentucky, do search for a warrant and possible cause. 

The ACLU announces 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 organisation disagrees that mobile phone firms have made transparency worse by hiding how long they store location data. For instance, Run keeps tracking records for as many as two years and ATT maintains records from July 2008, according to the U.S. Office of Justice. 

In an open letter to wireless carriers, the ACLU implores them to "stop customarily 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 clear how information is being kept and give shoppers 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 would require law enforcement agencies to get a warrant before tracking mobile phone data. The act, called the Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance ( GPS ) Act, has bipartisan support but has not yet moved out of board. 

"Law enforcement, in my mind, has overstepped its bounds and thrown out lots of our 4th 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 need for real time tracking, though not for historic location information." 

"I believe the American public deserves and expects a degree of personal privacy," said Chaffetz. "We in The United States don't work on a presumption of guilt." 

Tags: ACLU, GPS, Warrant-less search