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The Cell Phone Network: Law Enforcement's Surveillance Dream

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March 8, 2010

Yesterday, WNYC’s On the Media (OTM) profiled our cell phone tracking case. In this case, the ACLU, Center for Democracy and Technology and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) asked the court to require that the government at least show probable cause before it can ask a wireless provider to fork over information about your whereabouts using GPS or cell tower tracking via your cell phone. We won in the district court (PDF); the government appealed that decision to the 3rd Circuit.

ACLU attorney Catherine Crump blogged about the case when it was heard by the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia last month.

EFF’s Kevin Bankston, who argued the case before the 3rd Circuit, told OTM:

At a security and surveillance conference a few months ago, the Sprint electronic surveillance manager admitted that law enforcement was making such extensive use of [the cell phone tracking capability] that Sprint had set up essentially a Web portal for law enforcement to go to, to ping cell phones to find their location based on GPS. He said that that website had been used eight million times over a one-year period.

Basically, through our purchases of cell phones, we American consumers are building the technical infrastructure for a surveillance network that’s so extensive and pervasive that even Orwell or J. Edgar Hoover, for that matter, could not have dreamt it up.

Eight. Million. Times. That sounds like an abuse of power to us.

In defense of this practice of surveillance via cell phone, the Justice Department argued that you — yes you, with the cell phone — gave up your Fourth Amendment rights when you bought the cell phone. And that if you don’t want to be tracked, don’t carry a cell phone.

We heartily disagree. Stay tuned…we expect a decision from the 3rd Circuit soon.

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