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

warrant-less search

In Aug 2011 the ACLU issued public documentation requests to over 380 state and local law enforcement agencies and found that nearly all the departments that replied tracked cellphones, most without warrants. 

The great majority of the two hundred agencies that answered engaged in some mobile phone tracking. Only a few those said they regularly seek warrants and demonstrate likely cause before tracking phones, according to the ACLU report

Most law enforcement agencies stated that they track phones to analyze crimes, while others said they use tracking only in emergencies like a missing persons case. Only ten agencies said they never use telephone tracking. 

Some law enforcement agencies provided enough paperwork to color a detailed picture of cellphone tracking activities. As an example, Raleigh, North Carolina, tracks masses of telephones per year based primarily on invoices from telephone firms. In Wilson County, North Carolina, police get historical tracking information where it's "relevant and material" to a continual inquiry, a standard the ACLU notes is lower than possible cause. 

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

Additionally, the ACLU observes that telephone tracking is becoming so common that phone companies have manuals that explain to police what info the firms store, how much they require payment for access to data and what's required for police to access it. 

Nonetheless 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 look 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 probable cause requirements, then surely other agencies can as well." 


The civil freedoms organisation argues that mobile phone companies 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 routinely keeping information about your customers' location history that you 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 customers more control over how their info is utilized. 

The ACLU is not alone in its concern. Members of both chambers of Congress have introduced legislation that would require law enforcement agencies to obtain a warrant before tracking telephone information. The act, known as 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 plenty of our Fourth Change rights," related 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 realtime tracking, although not for historical location information." 

"I assume the American public merits and expects a degree of personal privacy," announced Chaffetz. "We in America don't work on a presumption of guilt." 

Tags: ACLU, GPS, Warrant-less search