Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Cell Phone Location Surveillance: Now at a Police Dept. Near You

by Julian Sanchez
April 2, 2012

As The New York Times reported this weekend, a series of freedom-of-information requests by the American Civil Liberties Union have confirmed what privacy and surveillance wonks long suspected: The use of cell phones as tracking devices by state and local law enforcement has become extremely common over the past few years, and is often done without the check of a Fourth Amendment search warrant based on probable cause.

More than 200 law enforcement agencies have responded to the ACLU’s request so far, and all but ten acknowledge tracking cell phone location for some purposes. Many do so primarily in emergency situations to locate potential victims of crime or accident, and of those that also make use of location tracking for investigative purpose, several insist that they always obtain a probable cause warrant. But many others either have unclear standards, or rely on subpoenas or court orders based on the low and easily-met standard of “relevance” to an investigation. In effect, they assert the right to put a virtual tracker on citizens—the same conduct the Supreme Court unanimously held to be covered by the Fourth Amendment when a physical tracking device is used—without any need to persuade a judge that a lojacked individual is actually engaged in any criminal conduct.

Perhaps the most troubling revelation, however, is the evidence that at least a handful of law enforcement agencies reported seeking “tower dumps” revealing everyone near a location at a particular time, a form of mass surveillance that can be used to generate a list of potential suspects.  the rest


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