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

warrant-less search

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

The vast majority of the 2 hundred agencies that responded engaged in some cellphone tracking. Only a few those said they regularly seek warrants and demonstrate probable cause before tracking phones, according to the ACLU report

Most law enforcement agencies stated that they track phones to research 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 paperwork to color an in-depth image of cellphone tracking activities. For instance, Raleigh, North Carolina, tracks hundreds of telephones per year based on invoices from phone corporations. In Wilson County, North Carolina, police get historic tracking info where it's "relevant and material" to a continuing investigation, a standard the ACLU notes is lower than likely cause. 

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

Furthermore, the ACLU observes that cellphone tracking has become so common that phone companies have manuals that explain to police what data the firms store, how much they bill for access to info and what's needed for police to access it. 

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

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


The civil freedoms organisation disagrees that cellphone corporations have made transparency worse by hiding how long they store location info. For example, Sprint keeps tracking records for as much as two years and ATT maintains records from July 2008, according to the U.S. Office of Justice. 

In a public communication to wireless carriers, the ACLU implores them to "stop typically retaining information about your customers' location history that you happen to collect as a side-product of how mobile technology works," and asks them to disclose how info is being kept and give customers more control of how their information is employed. 

The ACLU isn't alone in its concern. Members of both chambers of Congress have introduced legislation that will need law enforcement agencies to get a warrant before tracking telephone data. 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 lots of our Fourth Change rights," said 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 obligation for realtime tracking, although not for historic location information." 

"I think the American public deserves and expects a degree of personal privacy," announced Chaffetz. "We in America do not work on a presumption of guilt." 

Tags: ACLU, GPS, Warrant-less search