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The Results From Our Nationwide Cell Phone Tracking Records Requests

The information one's location might reveal can be strikingly personal.
Allie Bohm,
Policy Counsel,
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April 2, 2012

Ten. That’s the number of law enforcement agencies that responded to our coordinated public records requests on cell phone location tracking and reported that they, in fact, do not track cell phones. The number of agencies queried: 383. The number that responded (so far): some 200.

We’ve just released the documents those law enforcement agencies turned over to us, and The New York Times has run a front-page story on our findings.

If you’re living in one of the places where local law enforcement agents reported tracking cell phones, or for that matter anywhere else in the country, you might be wondering under what circumstances your law enforcement agents are getting access to cell phone location information.

Given the intimate nature of location information, the government should have to obtain a warrant based upon probable cause to track cell phones. That is what is necessary to protect Americans’ privacy, and it is also what is required under the constitution. But is that what the police do? The answer is it depends. Law enforcement agencies’ tracking policies are in a state of chaos, with different towns following different rules — or in some cases, having no rules at all.

A number of enforcement agencies across the country, in states as diverse as Hawaii, Kansas, Kentucky, Nevada, and New Jersey, reported obtaining a probable cause warrant in order to access cell phone location information. The takeaway here? If these police departments can protect both public safety and privacy by meeting the warrant and probable cause requirements, then surely others can as well.

So what’s the others’ excuse?

Some jurisdictions were forthcoming about the fact that they don’t seek warrants to track cell phone location. Take for example, police in Lincoln, Neb., who obtain even GPS location data (which is more precise than cell tower location information) without demonstrating probable cause. Or police in Wilson County, N.C., who obtain historical cell tracking data where it is “relevant” to an ongoing investigation — a standard lower than probable cause.

The craziest part — if you’re in Honolulu or Hawaii County, your law enforcement agents are obtaining a probable cause warrant; if you’re in Kauai, you’re out of luck, and law enforcement agencies might be obtaining your information via administrative subpoena. If you’re in Lexington, Ky., your local police are getting a warrant, but if the Kentucky State Police are interested in you, it’s a different story.

Then there are the departments who either refused to tell us whether they obtain a warrant or ignored our question altogether — never a good sign. And there were the small number of departments who appear to have outsourced this question to cell phone companies. Weber County, Utah, for example, informed us that “Each provider has a different system for authorizing police use of location information and we comply with whatever that cell phone provider requests.” I don’t know about you, but I don’t trust my cell phone provider to insist on a probable cause warrant — and with good reason: the cell phone companies’ manuals we received indicate that they don’t always demand a warrant.

And in some circumstances, you don’t have to even be suspected of a crime for your location information to be scooped up; you just have to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Several law enforcement agencies reported obtaining all of the cell phone numbers at a particular location at a particular time. For example, a police officer in Tucson, Ariz., prepared a memo for fellow officers explaining how to obtain this data. And records from Cary, N.C., include a request for all phones that utilized particular cell phone towers.

Of course, then there are police departments in places like Gilbert, Ariz., which have purchased their own cell tracking technology. And the fact that some cell phone companies appear to be hanging onto location data indefinitely, leaving a treasure trove ripe for the taking. If you’re not overwhelmed yet, take a closer look at the documents we received.

If you’re already outraged, head over to our action center and tell your members of Congress to support the Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance Act, which would require law enforcement agents to obtain a probable cause warrant in order to track cell phone and GPS location information in investigations. You can also call your state legislators and urge them to support similar legislation at the state level — already, location tracking bills are pending in at least 11 states.

This issue is important. After all, the information one’s location might reveal can be strikingly personal. As one court recently found, one’s location might demonstrate “whether he is a weekly churchgoer, 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.”

Demand your dotRights, because you shouldn’t have to sacrifice your privacy just to use a cell phone

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