In Aug 2011 the ACLU issued public records requests to over 380 state and local law enforcement agencies and found that virtually all the departments that responded tracked telephones, most without warrants.
The great majority of the 200 agencies that replied engaged in some cellphone tracking. Only a handful of those claimed they regularly seek warrants and demonstrate probable cause before tracking mobile phones, according to the ACLU report.
Most law enforcement agencies stated that they track telephones to analyze crimes, while others claimed they use tracking only in emergencies like a missing folks case. Only 10 agencies said they never use cellphone tracking.
Some law enforcement agencies provided enough documentation to paint a meticulous image of cellphone tracking activities. For example, Raleigh, North Carolina, tracks loads of cellphones a year based on invoices from telephone firms. In Wilson County, North Carolina, police get historical tracking data where it's "relevant and material" to a continuing investigation, the standard the ACLU notes is lower than probable cause.
Police in Lincoln, Nebraska, obtain GPS location information on phones without demonstrating likely cause. GPS location info is far more definite than cell tower location info, according to the ACLU.
Similarly, the ACLU observes that cellphone tracking has become so common that cellphone companies have manuals that explain to police what information the firms store, how much they bill for access to info and what's required for police to access it.
However , 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 search for a warrant and probable 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 disagrees that mobile phone firms have made transparency worse by hiding how long they store location data. For example, Run keeps tracking records for as much as 2 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 customarily maintaining information 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 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 obtain a warrant before tracking telephone info. 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," 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 obligation for realtime tracking, though not for historical location information."
"I assume the American public merits and expects a degree of personal privacy," announced Chaffetz. "We in America do not work on a hypothesis of guilt."
Tags: ACLU, GPS, Warrant-less search