Categories: Global Tech News

ACLU Finds U.S. Police Departments Using Cell Phone Tracking, Sometimes Warrantless

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has obtained documents that show that federal agencies aren’t the only ones using cell phone tracking — it has become a regular practice for both small and large police departments throughout the U.S. as well.

The ACLU got its hands on 5,500 pages of internal records from 205 police departments all over the country. The documents show that many police departments are putting cell phone tracking to major use with little safeguards, but they’re not talking about it. Wireless carriers are in on it too, making a pretty penny by offering surveillance fees to police departments that want to collect information like a cell phone’s location, or trace phone calls or texts.

Some specific examples from the internal documents include Gilbert, Arizona, which spent $244,000 on its own tracking equipment; Ogden, Utah, where the Sheriff’s Department leaves it up to the cell carrier to collect information on a cell phone; California, where state prosecutors suggested that local police get carriers to duplicate a phone and download the test messages when it is turned off, and certain cities in states like Nevada and North Carolina have managed to get carriers to track cell phone signals back to cell towers in non-emergency situations in an effort to determine which callers are using a specific tower.

“Some jurisdictions were forthcoming about the fact that they don’t seek warrants to track cell phone location,” said the ACLU. “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.

“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.”

The ACLU found that many police department manuals throughout the U.S. mention cell phone tracking as a tool, but warn that the use of cell phone tracking (especially those that are warrantless) should not be discussed with the public or media because of the backlash that could arise. A Nevada manual, for instance, states that cell phone tracing without a warrant “is only authorized for life-threatening emergencies!!” while others (such as those in Iowa) say to simply keep the matter hush-hush and out of police reports, whether it is warrantless or not. 

It’s important to note that the internal documents obtained by the ACLU have not found that police departments are listening in on phone calls without court warrants. They are, however, tracing cell phones in order to get the locations and records of certain users.

Some police departments have said that cell phone tracking is very valuable because it aids in finding a child that has been kidnapped or murder cases. However, the ACLU is concerned that the use of cell phone tracking has the potential to be abused, especially when police act without court consent. For instance, a Supreme Court ruling this past January found that a GPS device used on the car of a drug suspect violated Fourth Amendment rights. The ACLU worries that cell phone tracking could fall under that same violation against unreasonable searches.

Overall, the internal documents spelled out that while police departments are using cell phone tracking more regularly, they’re still trying to figure out the legal end of the situation. Not all departments are abusing the tool, but there is a fine line between the police department’s need for information in dire cases and the citizen’s need for privacy.

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