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 nearly all the departments that responded tracked mobile phones, most without warrants. 

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

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

Some law enforcement agencies provided enough documentation to color a meticulous picture of cellphone tracking activities. For example, Raleigh, North Carolina, tracks hundreds of cellphones per year primarily based on invoices from phone firms. In Wilson County, North Carolina, police get historical tracking data where it's "relevant and material" to an ongoing enquiry, the standard the ACLU notes is lower than likely cause. 

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

Similarly, the ACLU points out that cellphone tracking is becoming so common that phone corporations have manuals that explain to police what info the companies store, how much they require payment for access to information and what's needed for police to access it. 

Nonetheless some law enforcement agencies do seek warrants and probable cause before tracking phones. Police in the County of Hawaii, Hawaii, Wichita, Kansas and Lexington, Kentucky, do search 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 likely cause requirements, then surely other agencies can as well." 


The civil liberties organization argues that phone firms have made transparency worse by hiding how long they store location information. As an example, Sprint keeps tracking records for as many as two years 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 typically maintaining data about your customers' location history that you happen to collect as a byproduct of how mobile technology works," and asks them to make public how information is being kept and give purchasers more control over how their info is employed. 

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 cellphone data. The act, known as the Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance ( GPS ) Act, has bipartisan support but has not yet moved out of committee. 

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

"I believe the American public merits and expects a degree of private privacy," said Chaffetz. "We in The USA do not work on a presumption of guilt." 

Tags: ACLU, GPS, Warrant-less search