Results of Nationwide Government Cell Phone Tracking Records Request Show Frequent Violations of Americans' Privacy Rights

The ACLU has just released the results of our affiliates’ public records requests to hundreds of police departments around the country asking them about their cell phone tracking policies.

What we have learned is disturbing. Many of the approximately 200 law enforcement agencies that responded said they track cell phones without a warrant. As The New York Times reports, this invasive form of surveillance often happens without any court oversight at all.

A small number of agencies, such as in North Las Vegas and Wichita, said they do obtain warrants based on probable cause before tracking. Others, such as the Kentucky State Police, said they use varying legal standards, such as a warrant or a less-strict subpoena. The result is unclear or inconsistent legal standards from town to town that frequently fall short of probable cause.

The government should have to get a warrant before tracking cell phones. That is what is necessary to protect Americans’ privacy, and it is also what is required under the Constitution.

The fact that some law enforcement agencies do get warrants shows that a probable cause requirement is a completely reasonable and workable policy, allowing police to protect both public safety and privacy.

Last August, in an unprecedented effort to penetrate the secrecy around the policies, 35 ACLU affiliates around the country filed over 380 requests under states' freedom of information laws. The ACLU asked state and local law enforcement agencies about their policies, procedures and practices for tracking cell phones. An in-depth summary of what we found, with links to documents, is here.

The responses varied widely, and many agencies did not respond at all. The documents included statements of policy, memos, police requests to cell phone companies (sometimes in the form of a subpoena or warrant), and invoices and manuals from cell phone companies explaining their procedures and prices for turning over location data. There’s a map with links to the documents and requests state-by-state here.

The documents provide an eye-opening view of police surveillance of Americans. In Wilson County, N.C., police obtain cell phone tracking data where it is “relevant and material” to an ongoing investigation – a standard much lower than probable cause. Police in Lincoln, Neb., without demonstrating probable cause, obtain even GPS location data, which is more precise than cell tower location information. In Tucson, Ariz., police sometimes obtain cell phones numbers for all of the phones at a particular location at a certain time (this practice is known as a “tower dump”).

The U.S. Supreme Court in January held in U.S. v. Jones that prolonged location tracking is a search under the Fourth Amendment, but the effects of that ruling on law enforcement have yet to be seen.

The ACLU supports bipartisan legislation currently pending in both the House of Representatives and the Senate that would address this problem called the Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance (GPS) Act. It would require law enforcement officers to obtain a warrant to access location information from cell phones or GPS devices. It would also mandate that private telecommunications companies obtain their customers’ consent before collecting location data. At least 11 state legislatures are also considering bills related to location tracking.

Technology is evolving quickly, and often to the detriment of privacy. How much privacy Americans enjoy is a choice that ultimately is ours as a society to make.

View comments (6)
Read the Terms of Use

Anonymous

I would like to know if I have the right to request from my cell carrier whether or not there were any requests to monitor my phone.
If I have that right, how do I go about requesting the information?

Anonymous

In another artical on this subject it noted that in many cases police are requesting text messages from cell phone providers. Considering that I establish a copyright whenever I create something, like this comment or a text message wouldn't providing such text messages to a third party be a violation of US copyright law? I understand that by obtaining a warrant this can be avoided but without one It would seem to be a violation of Federal law. But I could be wrong on this.

Wayne

MIAmobi

People need to take control of our own privacy when it comes to SmartPhone tracking. MIAmobi SilentPocket addresses this issue and many more problems associated with mobile devices. With over 500,000 mobile app developed for smartphones, many of which are stealth and are ease dropping on your every move. Some are capable of turning on functions on your phone like your mic,camera, GPS, address book and more, even when it has been turned off. There is only one sure way to stop this if you really want to know for sure that you have control of your mobile device you have to block all wifi coming in or going out.

Benjamin Wright

Scott Wallace reports that police helicopter pilots in Los Angeles harass him routinely and that, to follow him, they use the phone tracking techniques detailed on this ACLU blog. To support his message, Mr. Wallace has compiled a detailed blog, with much video. I understand the rules of this ACLU blog to be that I cannot link to Mr. Wallace's blog. However the reader may find Mr. Wallace's blog by searching "lapd air unit harasses routinely". ACLU is of course not responsible for Mr. Wallace's blog.

Mr. Wallace requests that readers help him bring attention to his story. Thank you. --Benjamin Wright, acting on behalf of Mr. Wallace

iphone app deve...

Hi

GREAT ! You convey the impression as if you have an implausible knowledge on it and its your gratefulness for giving out and imparting your knowledge and blog with others.

Anonymous

I agree with mr. Wallace all law enforcement where available which is just about everywhere here in america use the E-911 system to track where individuals are , they just lock there cell number in the system and can track them right across state lines every where they go , all without seeing a judge or obtaining any kind of warrant. It's misuse of government property, and a federal crime as far as I am concerned. I have been a victim of retaliation from law enforcement for years now with them using this very annoying method of surveilance.

Stay Informed