In Aug 2011 the ACLU issued public documentation requests to over 380 state and local law enforcement agencies and discovered that virtually all of the departments that responded tracked mobile phones, most without warrants.
The majority of the 200 agencies that answered engaged in some mobile phone tracking. Only a few those said they frequently seek warrants and demonstrate possible cause before tracking mobile phones, according to the ACLU report.
Most law enforcement agencies said they track phones to investigate crimes, while others claimed they use tracking only in emergencies like a missing people case. Only ten agencies stated that they never use mobile phone tracking.
Some law enforcement agencies provided enough paperwork to color a meticulous picture of cellphone tracking activities. For example, Raleigh, North Carolina, tracks masses of cellphones every year based primarily on invoices from telephone companies. In Wilson County, North Carolina, police get historic tracking data where it's "relevant and material" to an ongoing inquiry, the standard the ACLU notes is lower than possible cause.
Police in Lincoln, Nebraska, obtain GPS location data on phones without demonstrating probable cause. GPS location information is rather more accurate than cell tower location information, according to the ACLU.
Additionally, the ACLU observes that cellphone tracking has become so common that mobile phone firms have manuals that explain to police what information the firms store, how much they bill for access to data 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 search 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 needs, then surely other agencies can as well."
The civil liberties organisation argues that mobile phone companies have made transparency worse by concealing how long they store location information. As an example, Sprint keeps tracking records for as much as 24 months and ATT maintains records from July 2008, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
In an open letter to wireless carriers, the ACLU implores them to "stop typically keeping info about your customers' location history that you happen to collect as a side-effect of how mobile technology works," and asks them to make public how info is being kept and give customers more control of how their information is used.
The ACLU is not alone in its concern. Members of both chambers of Congress have introduced legislation that would require law enforcement agencies to obtain a warrant before tracking cellphone info. The act, called the Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance ( GPS ) Act, has bipartisan support but hasn't yet moved out of committee.
"Law enforcement, in my mind, has overstepped its bounds and thrown out lots 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, though not for historic location information."
"I think the American public merits and expects a degree of personal privacy," said Chaffetz. "We in America don't work on a presumption of guilt."
Tags: ACLU, GPS, Warrant-less search