In August 2011 the ACLU issued official records requests to over 380 state and local law enforcement agencies and revealed that virtually all of the departments that replied tracked mobile phones, most without warrants.
The great majority of the 2 hundred agencies that responded engaged in some mobile phone tracking. Only a handful of those claimed they frequently seek warrants and demonstrate possible cause before tracking phones, according to the ACLU report.
Most law enforcement agencies claimed they track phones to analyze crimes, while others claimed they use tracking only in emergencies like a missing persons case. Only ten agencies said they never use cellphone tracking.
Some law enforcement agencies provided enough documentation to color an in-depth picture of telephone tracking activities. For instance, Raleigh, North Carolina, tracks masses of phones per year based primarily on invoices from phone corporations. In Wilson County, North Carolina, police obtain historic tracking information where it's "relevant and material" to an ongoing enquiry, 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 accurate than cell tower location info, according to the ACLU.
Additionally, the ACLU observes that cellphone tracking has become so common that phone firms have manuals that explain to police what data the firms store, how much they charge for access to data and what's needed 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 announces that if "police departments can protect both public safety and privacy by meeting the warrant and possible cause requirements, then certainly other agencies can as well."
The civil liberties organization disagrees that phone firms have made transparency worse by hiding how long they store location info. For example, Sprint keeps tracking records for as many as 24 months 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 typically keeping info about your customers' location history that you chance to collect as a byproduct of how mobile technology works," and asks them to make public how info is being kept and give customers more control of how their information is employed.
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 mobile phone information. The act, called the Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance ( GPS ) Act, has bipartisan support but hasn't yet moved out of council.
"Law enforcement, in my mind, has overstepped its bounds and thrown out lots of our 4th Change rights," said 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 obligation for real-time tracking, though not for historic location information."
"I think the American public deserves and expects a degree of personal privacy," said Chaffetz. "We in The USA don't work on a hypothesis of guilt."
Tags: ACLU, GPS, Warrant-less search