Most law enforcement agencies track cell phone users without warrants

In August 2011, 35 ACLU affiliates filed over 380 public records requests with state and local law enforcement agencies to inquire about “policies, procedures and practices for tracking cell phones.” What the ACLU found is quite alarming, but definitely keeps with the post-9/11 Orwellian atmosphere.

“While virtually all of the over 200 police departments that responded to our request said they track cell phones, only a tiny minority reported consistently obtaining a warrant and demonstrating probable cause to do so,” writes the ACLU. The group is quick to point out, however, that “some agencies do obtain warrants, showing that law enforcement agencies can protect Americans’ privacy while also meeting law enforcement needs.”

The most disturbing aspect of this law enforcement tracking is the fact that a smartphone registers its location several times a minute with its carrier, and this function cannot be turned off while the phone is receiving a wireless signal. Thus, law enforcement has the means of better than minute-to-minute cell phone tracking, which would allow the government to collect information on individuals such as political and personal associations, religious identification, frequency of medical treatment, and so on. If one frequented a radical bookstore, for instance, the individual’s location therein would be pinged back to the service provider and collected by law enforcement.

All the more reason, of course, to turn one’s phone off, especially if one is active in protest circles or other associations critical of the status quo.

According to the ACLU, the documents received included “statements of policy, memos, police requests to cell phone companies (sometimes in the form of a subpoena or warrant), and invoices and manuals from cell phone companies explaining their procedures and prices for turning over the location data.” As noted by law enforcement agencies in their response to the ACLU, the cell phone tracking is often used to investigate crimes, while others said it was used to track missing persons.

The ACLU cites the County of Hawaii, Wichita, KS, and Lexington, KY, as consistent in demonstrating probable cause to obtain a warrant when tracking cell phones; while police in Lincoln, NB, and Wilson County, NC, either don’t demonstrate probable cause, or do so where it is “relevant and material” to an ongoing investigation (a lesser standard than probable cause), respectively. They also note that some law enforcement agencies obtain their own cell phone tracking equipment instead of gathering records from carriers, who can store it anywhere from eight months to two years, depending on their procedures.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) recommends that smartphone users power down their devices, remove the battery or leave it at home if cell phone tracking is a concern. Or maybe have some fun with the law enforcement tracking by walking in circles, then taking a trip to a toy store, bridal shop, hat store, flower shop, up and down subways (again and again), and then simply walk around and around, weaving random paths psychogeography-style, until no pattern at all takes shape.