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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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In that case, the Supreme Court reversed Jones' conviction and sentence of life without parole in a cocaine trafficking case after they found substantial evidence that the FBI placed a GPS device on Jones vehicle for 28 days without a search warrant. When police monitored Jones vehicle without a warrant, the court said, "This violated his Fourth Amendment right against unreasonable search and seizure."

According to Leckar, the "third-party" doctrine is a means for law enforcement to get around the Fourth Amendment. "As the law reads," he said, the 'third-party' doctrine doesn't violate the Fourth Amendment. To change this, people will have to petition Congress to change that doctrine."

While privacy advocates like the ACLU's Crump argue that cell phone users should get the same protections against warrantless tracking as people subjected to GPS devices being surreptitiously placed on their vehicles, the Justice Department disagrees.

"There is no trespass or physical intrusion on a citizen's cell phone when the government obtains historical cell-site records from a provider," Justice Department attorneys argued in a brief in an appeals court case in February, adding that cell phone data are not as precise as GPS tracking data.

Most, but not all, recent state and federal court decisions in major drug cases have upheld the right of police to either track cell phones or search them for evidence in an investigation. In March, the US 7th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a warrantless search of a cell phone by Indiana police, a phone belonging to a  meth dealer identified as Abel Flores Lopez. Flores was given ten years in federal prison. His co-defendant Alberto Santana Cabrera received the toughest punishment. Santana got 75 years after failing to assist the government with valuable information on other drug dealers.

But federal judicial opinion isn't unanimous. Last year, in a blistering one-page ruling, US District Court Judge Lynn Hughes of the Southern District of Texas in Houston declared "that the law allowing the government to obtain cell phone records without a warrant is unconstitutional."

In that case, federal prosecutors had subpoenaed MetroPCS and T-Mobile to hand over sixty days of cell phone location data belonging to drug suspects. "The records would show the date, time, called number, and location of the telephone when the call was made," Hughes noted.

As the law now stands, cell phone customers who value their privacy are at the mercy of law enforcement and their wireless service providers. And the wireless service providers are all too happy to work with law enforcement voluntarily, and turn a tidy profit doing it.

Our favorite carriers, including AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint, are in on the action by selling information to police of a person's whereabouts, including the sale of private text messages and cell tower data, which pinpoint the location where someone is using a cell, the New York Times reported in March . Some companies are marketing surveillance fees to law enforcement to spy on targets even though wireless carriers declare that they don't sell their customers' information to police.

The Times found that T-Mobile charges law enforcement $150 per-hour for cell phone data that shows the approximate location of the tower that a cell phone "pings" off of when the user makes a call. It found that Alltel provides a faxed listing of an electronic "Tower Dump" for specific times and dates. The listing is "no charge," but the company charges a flat rate of $500 for those searches.

Verizon Wireless, on the other hand, charges  $30-$60 for 15 minutes' worth of tower data, while AT&T charges $75 hourly (a minimum of two to four hours per tower) for a Cell Tower Dump or Cell Site Usage Report. Cell Site Usage also includes subscriber information for the location, date and time when a phone was used.