In August 2011 the ACLU issued official records requests to over 380 state and local law enforcement agencies and discovered that virtually all of the departments that replied tracked cellphones, most without warrants.
The vast majority of the 200 agencies that answered engaged in some cellphone tracking. Only a handful of those said they constantly 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 folks case. Only ten agencies said they never use cellphone tracking.
Some law enforcement agencies provided enough paperwork to paint a meticulous image of phone tracking activities. For example, Raleigh, North Carolina, tracks hundreds of phones per year based on invoices from telephone companies. In Wilson County, North Carolina, police obtain historic tracking data 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 information on telephones without demonstrating likely cause. GPS location information is far more precise than cell tower location info, according to the ACLU.
Similarly, the ACLU observes that telephone tracking is becoming so common that cellphone companies have manuals that explain to police what info the firms store, how much they require payment for access to data and what's needed for police to access it.
However , some law enforcement agencies do seek warrants and likely cause before tracking cellphones. Police in the County of Hawaii, Hawaii, Wichita, Kansas and Lexington, Kentucky, do seek a warrant and likely cause.
The ACLU claims that if "police departments can protect both public safety and privacy by meeting the warrant and possible cause needs, then certainly other agencies can as well."
The civil liberties organization disagrees that mobile phone firms have made transparency worse by hiding how long they store location info. For example, Sprint keeps tracking records for as much as 24 months and ATT maintains records from July 2008, according to the U.S. Office of Justice.
In a public communication to wireless carriers, the ACLU implores them to "stop typically maintaining 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 public how information is being kept and give purchasers more control of how their information is utilized.
The ACLU is not alone in its concern. Members of both chambers of Congress have introduced legislation that will require law enforcement agencies to obtain a warrant before tracking mobile phone info. 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 plenty 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 need for real time tracking, although not for historical location information."
"I believe the American public merits and expects a degree of private privacy," announced Chaffetz. "We in The United States do not work on a hypothesis of guilt."
Tags: ACLU, GPS, Warrant-less search