Law enforcement track cellphones without warrants. "Warrant-less search"

warrant-less search

In August 2011 the ACLU issued public records requests to over 380 state and local law enforcement agencies and revealed that nearly all the departments that replied tracked cellphones, most without warrants. 

The vast majority of the 2 hundred agencies that replied engaged in some cellphone tracking. Only a handful of those claimed they constantly seek warrants and demonstrate possible cause before tracking cellphones, according to the ACLU report

Most law enforcement agencies said they track phones to analyze crimes, while others said they use tracking only in emergencies like a missing folks case. Only ten agencies said they never use mobile phone tracking. 

Some law enforcement agencies provided enough documentation to paint a meticulous image of telephone tracking activities. For example, Raleigh, North Carolina, tracks masses of phones a year based primarily on invoices from telephone corporations. In Wilson County, North Carolina, police get historic tracking information where it's "relevant and material" to an ongoing enquiry, a standard the ACLU notes is lower than likely cause. 

Police in Lincoln, Nebraska, obtain GPS location information on telephones without demonstrating possible cause. GPS location information is even more accurate than cell tower location information, according to the ACLU. 

Similarly, the ACLU points out that telephone tracking has gotten so common that cellphone companies have manuals that explain to police what info 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 phones. Police in the County of Hawaii, Hawaii, Wichita, Kansas and Lexington, Kentucky, do search for a warrant and probable cause. 

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


The civil liberties organization disagrees that phone companies have made transparency worse by hiding how long they store location data. For instance, 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 communication to wireless carriers, the ACLU implores them to "stop typically retaining data about your customers' location history that you happen to collect as a side-effect of how mobile technology works," and asks them to make clear how information is being kept and give customers more control of how their information is used. 

The ACLU isn't alone in its concern. Members of both chambers of Congress have introduced legislation that will need law enforcement agencies to obtain 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 plenty of our 4th Amendment rights," claimed 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 realtime tracking, though not for historical location information." 

"I think the American public deserves and expects a degree of personal privacy," asserted Chaffetz. "We in The United States don't work on a presumption of guilt." 

Tags: ACLU, GPS, Warrant-less search