April 5, 2012
Warrantless cell-phone tracking widespread, study finds
By Donald White Apr 02, 2012
Many U.S. police departments are tracking the location of cell phones without a warrant or court supervision, according to an investigation by the American Civil Liberties Union.
Starting last summer, ACLU affiliates around the country began filing hundreds of Freedom of Information Act requests with law enforcement agencies to find out about their policies and procedures governing cell-phone location tracking.
Many agencies didn’t respond at all. But based on more than 5,500 pages of documents from the 200 agencies that did respond, the ACLU found that although police departments routinely use cell-phone location tracking in their investigations, “only a tiny minority reported consistently obtaining a warrant and demonstrating probable cause to do so.”
From the ACLU;
Cell Phone Location Tracking Public Records Request
April 4, 2012
Of all of the recent technological developments that have expanded the surveillance capabilities of law enforcement agencies at the expense of individual privacy, perhaps the most powerful is cell phone location tracking. And now, after an unprecedented records request by ACLU affiliates around the country, we know that this method is widespread and often used without adequate regard for constitutional protections, judicial oversight, or accountability.
Cell phones register their location with the network several times a minute and this function cannot be turned off while the phone is getting a wireless signal. The technology’s threat to personal privacy is breathtaking.
All cell phones register their location with cell phone networks several times a minute, and this function cannot be turned off while the phone is getting a wireless signal. The threat to personal privacy presented by this technology is breathtaking: To know a person’s location over time is to know a great deal about who a person is and what he or she values. As the federal appeals court in Washington, D.C. explained:
“A person who knows all of another’s travels can deduce whether he is a weekly church goer, a heavy drinker, a regular at the gym, an unfaithful husband, an outpatient receiving medical treatment, an associate of particular individuals or political groups — and not just one such fact about a person, but all such facts.”
The government should have to obtain a warrant based upon probable cause before tracking cell phones. That is what is necessary to protect Americans’ privacy, and it is also what is required under the Constitution. In United States v. Jones, a majority of the Supreme Court recently concluded that the government conducts a search under the Fourth Amendment when it attaches a GPS device to a car and tracks its movements. The conclusion should be no different when the government tracks people through their cell phones, and in both cases a warrant and probable cause should be required.
Until now, how law enforcement agents use cell phone tracking has been largely shrouded in secrecy. What little was known suggested that law enforcement agents frequently tracked cell phones without obtaining a warrant based on probable cause.
In August 2011, 35 ACLU affiliates filed over 380 public records requests with state and local law enforcement agencies to ask about their policies, procedures and practices for tracking cell phones.
What we have learned is disturbing. While virtually all of the over 200 police departments that responded to our request said they track cell phones, only a tiny minority reported consistently obtaining a warrant and demonstrating probable cause to do so. While that result is of great concern, it also shows that a warrant requirement is a completely reasonable and workable policy.
The government’s location tracking policies should be clear, uniform, and protective of privacy, but instead are in a state of chaos, with agencies in different towns following different rules — or in some cases, having no rules at all. It is time for Americans to take back their privacy. Courts should require a warrant based upon probable cause when law enforcement agencies wish to track cell phones. State legislatures and Congress should update obsolete electronic privacy laws to make clear that law enforcement agents should track cell phones only with a warrant.
Below is an overview of our findings and recommendations.
Is Your Local Law Enforcement Tracking Your Cell Phone’s Location?
In a massive coordinated information-seeking campaign, 35 ACLU affiliates filed over 380 requests in 31 states with local law enforcement agencies large and small to uncover when, why and how they are using cell phone location data to track Americans. Click on a state in the map below to see what requests we filed in that state, and what documents we received. Click here to learn more about the requests.
Here is the response from Oklahoma City Police Department;