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

warrant-less search

In Aug 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 replied tracked mobile phones, most without warrants. 

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

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

Some law enforcement agencies provided enough documentation to paint a meticulous image of telephone tracking activities. As an example, Raleigh, North Carolina, tracks hundreds of telephones per year based primarily on invoices from telephone firms. In Wilson County, North Carolina, police get historical tracking info where it's "relevant and material" to an ongoing inquiry, a standard the ACLU notes is lower than probable cause. 

Police in Lincoln, Nebraska, obtain GPS location data on telephones without demonstrating probable 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 gotten so common that phone companies have manuals that explain to police what data the firms store, how much they require payment for access to information and what's required for police to access it. 

But some law enforcement agencies do seek warrants and probable cause before tracking mobile phones. Police in the County of Hawaii, Hawaii, Wichita, Kansas and Lexington, Kentucky, do seek a warrant and likely cause. 

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


The civil freedoms organisation disagrees that mobile phone corporations have made transparency worse by concealing how long they store location data. As an example, Sprint keeps tracking records for as much 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 keeping information about your customers' location history that you happen to collect as a side-product of how mobile technology works," and asks them to make public how information is being kept and give customers more control over how their info is used. 

The ACLU is not alone in its concern. Members of both chambers of Congress have introduced legislation that will require law enforcement agencies to get 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 many of our Fourth 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 real-time tracking, although not for historical location information." 

"I believe the American public merits and expects a degree of personal privacy," announced Chaffetz. "We in America don't work on a presumption of guilt." 

Tags: ACLU, GPS, Warrant-less search