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 revealed that virtually all the departments that answered tracked telephones, most without warrants. 

The majority of the two hundred agencies that answered engaged in some cellphone tracking. Only a few those stated that they constantly seek warrants and demonstrate probable cause before tracking phones, according to the ACLU report

Most law enforcement agencies stated that they track telephones to research crimes, while others said 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 documentation to paint an in-depth image of phone tracking activities. For instance, Raleigh, North Carolina, tracks masses of cellphones every year based primarily on invoices from phone companies. In Wilson County, North Carolina, police get historical tracking info where it's "relevant and material" to an ongoing inquiry, the standard the ACLU notes is lower than likely cause. 

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

Additionally, the ACLU notes that cellphone tracking has become so common that mobile phone companies have manuals that explain to police what info the corporations store, how much they require payment for access to data and what's required for police to access it. 

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

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


The civil liberties organisation argues that mobile phone companies have made transparency worse by concealing how long they store location info. For instance, Run keeps tracking records for as much as 24 months 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 customarily maintaining info about your customers' location history that you happen to collect as a byproduct of how mobile technology works," and asks them to make clear how info is being kept and give customers more control of how their info is used. 

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 mobile phone data. The act, known as 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 4th Amendment rights," said 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 need for real-time tracking, though not for historical location information." 

"I think the American public merits and expects a degree of private privacy," said Chaffetz. "We in The United States don't work on a hypothesis of guilt." 

Tags: ACLU, GPS, Warrant-less search