Monday, April 02, 2012

Documents obtained by the ACLU show police use of cell phone tracking becoming routine

A Supreme Court ruling in January found that, without a warrant, placing a GPS unit on a drug suspect’s car violated his Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches. What then, of the burgeoning practice of the tracking of cellphones by law enforcement, which a New York Times report indicates is in far wider use than earlier thought.

The revelations came after a records request by ACLU offices around the nation obtained 5,500 pages of internal records from 205 police departments nationwide.

Although these agencies are not listening into calls, the responses showed that cell phone tracking is routine. Despite this, few of the agencies obtain warrants on a consistent basis.

Some examples (emphasis ours):

In cities in Nevada, North Carolina and other states, police departments have convinced wireless carriers to track cellphone signals back to cell towers as part of non-emergency investigations to determine all the callers using a particular cell tower.

In Ogden, Utah, if the Sheriff’s Department wants information on a particular cell phone, it leaves it up to the wireless carrier to determine what documentation or warrant, if any, the Department must provide. The response from the Sheriff's Department to the ACLU said that “Some companies ask that when we have time to do so, we obtain court approval for the tracking request.”

Some small police departments in Arizona have sidestepped the whole issue: they obtained their own tracking equipment to avoid having to ask the carriers to fulfill their requests. For example, the police department in the town of Gilbert spent $244,000 on its equipment.

To be clear, however, the documents obtained by the ACLU do not indicate cases in which police have conducted actual wiretapping operations without court authorization.

That said, one example cited in the ACLU documents showed that in California, state prosecutors advised local police departments on methods to get carriers to "clone" a cell phone and download text messages from it, while it is turned off.

The departments also seem to know what they are doing would be contentious if publicized: they
want such information kept out of police reports, and state that no mention be made to the public.

While use of such techniques in an emergency may be useful, such as in the case of Grand Rapids, Michigan police using a cell locator in February to find a stabbing victim who was in a basement hiding from his attacker, it's the casual use that should be worrisome to Americans.

Since SCOTUS has already said use of GPS technology sans a warrant is off-limits, how is this any different?

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