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 nearly all of the departments that answered tracked cellphones, most without warrants. 

The great 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 likely cause before tracking cellphones, according to the ACLU report

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

Some law enforcement agencies provided enough documentation to paint a detailed picture of telephone tracking activities. For instance, Raleigh, North Carolina, tracks masses of telephones per year based primarily on invoices from phone corporations. In Wilson County, North Carolina, police obtain historic tracking information where it's "relevant and material" to a continuing investigation, a standard the ACLU notes is lower than possible cause. 

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

Similarly, the ACLU observes that telephone tracking has gotten so common that mobile phone firms have manuals that explain to police what info the corporations store, how much they require payment for access to data 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 seek a warrant and probable cause. 

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


The civil liberties organisation disagrees that cellphone companies have made transparency worse by concealing how long they store location information. 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 a public letter to wireless carriers, the ACLU implores them to "stop routinely keeping data about your customers' location history that you should happen to collect as a side-product of how mobile technology works," and asks them to make clear how information is being kept and give purchasers more control of how their info 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 mobile phone information. 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 made by Vermont Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy, to update the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act ( ECPA ), which includes "a warrant requirement for real-time tracking, but not for historic location information." 

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

Tags: ACLU, GPS, Warrant-less search