Cell phone tracking by police is now routine

According to an article published yesterday in the NY Times citing thousands of documents obtained by the ACLU from 205 police departments nationwide, cell phone tracking by police departments across the country has become a routine activity.

The practice has become big business for cellphone companies, too, with a handful of carriers marketing a catalog of “surveillance fees” to police departments to determine a suspect’s location, trace phone calls and texts or provide other services. Some departments log dozens of traces a month for both emergencies and routine investigations.

It appears from the documents that often the cell phone tracking is done without prior authorization or search warrant, that some police departments do not think that they need search warrants, and that many police departments are attempting to hide the practice from the public, even instructing officers not to speak about cell phone tracking programs.

“Do not mention to the public or the media the use of cellphone technology or equipment used to locate the targeted subject,” the Iowa City Police Department warned officers in one training manual. It should also be kept out of police reports, it advised.

Although the article repeats several times that there was no evidence in the documents obtained that police departments are illegally eavesdropping on conversations, “[i]n California, state prosecutors advised local police departments on ways to get carriers to “clone” a phone and download text messages while it is turned off.”

Do we have an expectation of privacy in our cell phones?  Our location?  Our text messages?  If you google “cell phone tracking software” there is an abundance of services, companies, and gadgets that claim they can help you track a person’s cell phone, monitor their conversations, their text messages, etc., much of which may be illegal.  Is it different when the police do the same thing in the name of solving a crime or even saving a life?

I think yes. The problem begins 1) with the cell phone companies who are releasing data and who are assisting law enforcement with obtaining private information without a court order or search warrant; and 2) with law enforcement agencies and the prosecutors who advise them, but can we expect police or prosecutors to err on the side of privacy or, well, following the law?

We need case law to clarify these issues and to bring the courts into the 21st century.

3 Responses to “Cell phone tracking by police is now routine

  • But is it violating your expectation of privacy?

    The police can’t come and snatch my iPhone to see who I’ve been talking to because I naturally have an expectation of privacy regarding what is inside of MY phone.

    However, do I have an expectation of privacy when I use VZW or AT&T’s network of towers to place a phone call?

    I think this situation is different from the recent SCOTUS case because the police aren’t placing GPS trackers on your cell-phone. The cell phone manufacturer placed that GPS device inside the phone when it was created. Now the police are using technology to track the device that wirelessly transmit a signal to whatever tower is closest.

    If I see you sending up smoke signals and I arrest you, can you say that you had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the fire?

  • Police are not using technology to track the device, the phone companies are giving them the information. We are not talking about smoke signals and a fire, we are talking about data that is not visible to the public. I think that I have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the data that the phone company collects from my phone.

    I don’t give them permission to collect the data, or release it to the government. Not using a cellphone is not really an option today.

    But then again, it is easy to say there is no reasonable expectation of privacy, since we know that the government is accessing the data, and private industry is making it possible for anyone to snoop on the data, and we are not raising an outcry or doing anything to stop it. There will be no right to privacy if we don’t assert our right to privacy. Maybe we are already there.

    • But that’s the thing, we do give cell phone companies permission to collect our data whenever we sign those end user agreements and they regularly sell our collected information to 3rd parties.

      It’s just now those 3rd parties happen to be the Government.

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