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Warrantless Cell Phone Tapping? How Police May Be Secretly Tracking You

Warrantless cell phone tracking has become a powerful and widely used surveillance tool for police officials who use it aggressively with little or no court oversight.
 
 
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Photo Credit: StuartFrisby via Flickr

 
 
 
 

Special to Drug War Chronicle by investigative journalist Clarence Walker.

In the wake of the US Supreme Court's January decision in United States v. Jones, in which the high court forbade the warrantless use of GPS tracking devices to surveil people's movements, law enforcement and the Obama administration are scrambling -- not to find ways to comply with the spirit of the ruling, but to find ways around it.

Police in many states have switched tactics by obtaining mobile data to zero in on someone's prior movement and by tracking them through their cell phones, usually without a warrant. Whenever a cell phone is used, it "pings" an electronic signal to the nearest cell phone tower, allowing law enforcement to use the cell phone to find or track people. And cell phones containing GPS devices, which are increasingly common, "ping" constantly.

In April, the  American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) released an extensive study of state, federal, and local law enforcement's surveillance practices that illustrate how police track citizens through their cell phones. The findings were staggering. Warrantless cell phone tracking "has become a powerful and widely used surveillance tool for police officials, with hundreds of departments, large and small, often using it aggressively with little or no court oversight," the report found.

After poring over 5,500 pages of records in responses from over 200 local law enforcement agencies, the ACLU researchers reported that "only a tiny minority" -- 10 agencies total -- had obtained a warrant before tracking someone through his or her cell phone.

"What we have learned is disturbing," said ACLU staff attorney Catherine Crump, who helped file public information requests with some 385 law enforcement agencies. "The government should have to get a warrant before tracking a cell phone. Instead, what we found was that the cops track people with no supervision, or in some cases, mostly drug cases, the cop will go to court and only show that it would be relevant to an investigation, which is a lower standard."

The ACLU is calling for law enforcement agencies to desist from using cell phone tracking without a warrant, and is calling on state and federal lawmakers to pass legislation requiring a warrant before police use location tracking in non-emergency situations.

A bill to address the problem is pending in Congress. Senate Bill 1212 , the Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance (GPS) Act, is sponsored in the Senate by Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Mark Kirk (R-IL). Companion legislation in the House, House Resolution 2168 , is sponsored by Reps. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT), Peter Welch (D-VT) and Jim Sensenbrenner (R-WI.). The bills would require law enforcement agents to obtain a warrant in order to access location information.

Another Senate effort, Judiciary Committee chair Senator Patrick Leahy's (D-VT) Electronic Communications Privacy Act Amendments Act, Senate Bill 2011 , offers a partial repair of the problem. It includes a warrant requirement for real-time tracking, but not for historical location information.

The Obama administration disagrees that any action is needed. At a State of the Mobile Net conference held in May, Justice Department Deputy Assistant Attorney Jason Weinstein argued, "[t]he need for such warrantless cell phone tracking is important so it won't cripple the government and law enforcement."

The administration's lawyers insist that when a person turns on a cell phone, the information from the phone is transmitted through a third-party, such as the wireless carrier, and the user thus has no "expectation of privacy."

Warrantless cell phone tracking "should be illegal," said Washington, DC, appellate attorney Stephan Leckar, who successfully represented DC nightclub owner Antoine Jones in the case cited above.