ACLU Seeks Details on Government Phone Tracking in Massive Nationwide Information Request

Affiliate: ACLU of New Jersey
August 12, 2011 10:42 am

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Campaign is One of the Largest Coordinated Information Act Requests in American History

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NEW YORK – In a massive coordinated information-seeking campaign, 34 American Civil Liberties Union affiliates across the nation today, including New Jersey are sending requests to 379 local law enforcement agencies large and small demanding to know when, why and how they are using cellphone location data to track Americans. The campaign is one of the largest coordinated information act requests in American history. The requests, being filed under the states’ freedom of information laws, are an effort to strip away the secrecy that has surrounded law enforcement use of cellphone tracking capabilities.

“The ability to access cellphone location data is an incredibly powerful tool and its use is shrouded in secrecy. The public has a right to know how and under what circumstances their location information is being accessed by the government,” said Catherine Crump, staff attorney for the ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project. “A detailed history of someone’s movements is extremely personal and is the kind of information the Constitution protects.”

The ACLU-NJ sent open records requests to the 50 largest police departments in the state, including Newark, Jersey City and Camden. The requests asked for policies, procedures and practices followed when obtaining cellphone location records, criteria about when and how cellphone location records are used and any judicial orders or decisions allowing the departments to obtain cellphone location records.

“While New Jersey residents have widely embraced cellphones for the convenience they offer on a daily basis, they have also given the government an unprecedented ability to monitor people’s movements by tracking the geographical location of their cellphones,” said ACLU-NJ Open Governance Project attorney Bobby Conner. “New Jersey residents have a right to know if their police departments are tracking cell phones and if so, why?”

Law enforcement’s use of cell phone location data has been widespread for years, although it has become increasingly controversial recently. Just last week, the general counsel of the National Security Agency suggested to members of Congress that the NSA might have the authority to collect the location information of American citizens inside the U.S. Also, this spring, researchers revealed that iPhones were collecting and storing location information in unknown files on the phone. Police in Michigan sought information about every cellphone near the site of a planned labor protest.

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether police need a warrant to place a GPS tracking device on a person’s vehicle. While that case does not involve cell phones, it could influence the rules police have to follow for cell phone tracking.

Congress is considering the Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance Act, a bill supported by the ACLU that would require police to get a warrant to obtain personal location information. The bill would protect both historical and real-time location data, and would also require customers’ consent for telecommunications companies to collect location data.

Today’s requests are part of the ACLU’s Demand Your dotRights Campaign, the organization’s campaign to make sure that as technology advances, privacy rights are not left behind.

Requests were filed by the ACLU affiliates in Alabama, Arizona, Northern California, Southern California, San Diego and Imperial Counties, Connecticut, Washington D.C., Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Eastern Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.

More information about the requests is available at:

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