Who's watching you?

Law enforcement agencies are in a state of chaos with regards to whether to track suspects’ cell phone location information and whether to obtain a warrant in order to do so, according to an investigation by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The ACLU sent public records requests to law enforcement agencies around the country to gather information on how police are using cell phone data, and whether they are obtaining it through proper legal routes. Two hundred agencies agencies have responded to the ACLU requests at this time, out of 383. Out of the respondents, some were forthcoming with the information while others unhelpfully referred the query to cell phone service providers.

What they learned from some cooperative agencies was disturbing as well. In Lincoln, Nebraska, police actually obtain GPS location data – which is more accurate than cell tower information – without demonstrating probable cause. Just ten agencies reported that they do not ever track individuals’ location information – itself perhaps a disturbing figure, considering the vital role that proper use of identifying cell phone data could play in many investigations.

“This issue is important,” wrote ACLU advocacy and policy strategist Allie Bohm. “After all, the information one’s location might reveal can be strikingly personal. As one court recently found, one’s location might demonstrate ‘whether he is a weekly churchgoer, a heavy drinker, a regular at the gym, an unfaithful husband, an outpatient receiving medical treatment, an associate of particular individuals or political groups – and not just one such fact about a person, but all such facts.’”

The ACLU holds that requiring law enforcement officials to obtain a warrant before tracking an individual’s cell phone is a “reasonable and workable policy.” Bohm took time to praise departments that took the extra step to ensure they were attending to suspects’ rights.

“A number of enforcement agencies across the country, in states as diverse as Hawaii, Kansas, Kentucky, Nevada, and New Jersey, reported obtaining a probable cause warrant in order to access cell phone location information,” she wrote. “The takeaway here? If these police departments can protect both public safety and privacy by meeting the warrant and probable cause requirements, then surely others can as well.”

Cell phone privacy was thrust into the spotlight recently when it emerged that, unable to crack an Android-based handset needed in an investigation, the Federal Bureau of Investigation served a warrant to Google requesting that they open the phone.

Images: ACLU, AVCO Embassy Pictures

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