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

warrant-less search

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

The great majority of the 200 agencies that replied engaged in some mobile phone tracking. Only a few those stated that they regularly seek warrants and demonstrate possible cause before tracking mobile phones, according to the ACLU report

Most law enforcement agencies claimed they track phones to investigate crimes, while others said they use tracking only in emergencies like a missing people case. Only 10 agencies asserted they never use mobile phone tracking. 

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

Police in Lincoln, Nebraska, get GPS location info on phones without demonstrating possible cause. GPS location info is rather more precise than cell tower location info, according to the ACLU. 

Additionally, the ACLU points out that telephone tracking has become so common that mobile phone firms have manuals that explain to police what info the firms store, how much they require payment for access to info and what's needed for police to access it. 

But some law enforcement agencies do seek warrants and likely 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 freedoms organisation argues that phone firms have made transparency worse by hiding how long they store location data. For example, Run keeps tracking records for as many as two years and ATT maintains records from July 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. 

In an open letter 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 clear how info is being kept and give customers more control of how their information 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 get a warrant before tracking telephone info. The act, called 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 Fourth Modification rights," claimed 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 requirement for realtime tracking, though not for historical location information." 

"I believe the American public deserves and expects a degree of private privacy," said Chaffetz. "We in The USA don't work on a presumption of guilt." 

Tags: ACLU, GPS, Warrant-less search