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 discovered that nearly all of the departments that responded tracked telephones, most without warrants. 

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

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

Some law enforcement agencies provided enough documentation to paint a detailed image of cellphone tracking activities. As an example, Raleigh, North Carolina, tracks loads of phones every year based primarily on invoices from phone firms. In Wilson County, North Carolina, police obtain historical tracking data where it's "relevant and material" to a continuing enquiry, the standard the ACLU notes is lower than possible cause. 

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

Similarly, the ACLU points out that telephone tracking is becoming so common that mobile phone corporations have manuals that explain to police what info the corporations store, how much they bill for access to data and what's needed for police to access it. 

Nonetheless 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 look for a warrant and possible cause. 

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


The civil freedoms organisation disagrees that phone corporations have made transparency worse by concealing how long they store location information. As an example, Run keeps tracking records for as much as 24 months and ATT maintains records from July 2008, according to the U.S. Dept of Justice. 

In a public letter to wireless carriers, the ACLU implores them to "stop routinely keeping information about your customers' location history that you chance to collect as a byproduct of how mobile technology works," and asks them to disclose how info is being kept and give customers more control of how their info is utilized. 

The ACLU is not 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, 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 plenty of our 4th 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 need for real time tracking, but not for historical location information." 

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

Tags: ACLU, GPS, Warrant-less search