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

Affiliate: ACLU of Maine
August 12, 2011 10:35 am

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

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PORTLAND – Today, the Maine Civil Liberties Union Foundation (MCLU), along with 32 other ACLU affiliates across the nation, is sending requests to local law enforcement agencies large and small demanding to know when, why and how they are using cell phone 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 cell phone tracking capabilities.

“Cell phone location data is incredibly powerful because it potentially reveals our interests, our associations, our medical needs, and even our political views,” said MCLU Legal Director Zachary Heiden. “The public has a right to know how and under what circumstances the police are obtaining that information. The Constitution protects our right to be left alone.”

Law enforcement agencies are being asked for information including:

whether law enforcement agents demonstrate probable cause and obtain a warrant to access cell phone location data;
statistics on how frequently law enforcement agencies obtain cell phone location data;
how much money law enforcement agencies spend tracking cell phones and
other policies and procedures used for acquiring location data.
Law enforcement’s use of cell phone location data has been widespread for years, although it has become increasingly controversial recently. 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 cell phone near the site of a planned labor protest.

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to decide next term 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.

“Most Americans carry cell phones, but that should not automatically make us targets of police surveillance,” said MCLU Executive Director Shenna Bellows. “Unfortunately, people never find out they are being tracked unless they are later accused of committing a crime, but that turns the presumption of innocence on its head.”

Congress is considering the Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance Act (with the support of the ACLU), which 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.

In total, more than 365 information requests were filed with law enforcement agencies across the country. Here in Maine, requests were filed with the Maine State Police, the Maine Drug Enforcement Agency, and the police and sheriff’s departments of Maine’s largest cities and counties.

More information about the requests is available at… .

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