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Many Police Departments Engage in Warrantless Cell Phone Tracking 85

Posted by Unknown Lamer
from the are-they-watching-you? dept.
alphadogg writes with a distressing bit of analysis of the training materials acquired by the ACLU last week. From the article: "Many law enforcement agencies across the U.S. track mobile phones as part of investigations, but only a minority ask for court-ordered warrants, according to a report released Monday by the American Civil Liberties Union. More than 90 law enforcement agencies said they track mobile phones during investigations, but only six reported receiving court-approved warrants after demonstrating that there's probable cause of a crime, according to an ACLU report based on public information requests filed by the group last year." The ACLU has a handy page allowing you to see if your local PD engages in such practices.
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Many Police Departments Engage in Warrantless Cell Phone Tracking

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  • by bonch (38532) * on Monday April 02, 2012 @04:41PM (#39553143)

    I'm curious to know what exactly is being tracked. The summary makes you think that everything is being tracked, like conversations and text messages, but it's actually just location that's being tracked. Companies already track such data for service quality--for example, the iPhone tracks cell phone towers to determine strongest signal areas, which ultimately means it ends up with a history of phone locations. Most smartphones do this. That said, for the government to be able to track private property without permission for purposes of investigation is different, and there should be protection against such invasive surveillance. Unfortunately, I don't think much progress will be made in that regard as long as Obama is in office--he's demonstrated that he's more than happy to embrace warrantless surveillance of all kinds.

    • It's time to censor into so that none remain. Remember the Gamemakerdom!

    • by Anonymous Coward

      How is the parent post a Troll or Flamebait? Do the moderators gang up on this guy or something?

    • The summary makes you think that everything is being tracked, like conversations and text messages, but it's actually just location that's being tracked.

      Its not as straightforward as all that. Cellular providers are not required to keep your information private, and will generally cooperate with these requests without any sort of warrant.

      When 'incidents' happen they can find out exactly who was there (well, whoever has a phone which is most of us) and then backtrack location data to help come up with

    • "I don't think much progress will be made in that regard as long as Obama is in office--he's demonstrated that he's more than happy to embrace warrantless surveillance of all kinds." ...as if any of the other mainstream politicians would be any better.

      • by TheCarp (96830)

        Certainly not, however, the point remains, he wont be doing jack for progress. Being as good as any other mainstream politician is hardly a bonus point.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    It says in many instances the police obtained an administrative subpoena. While it's less of a standard, there is at least some standard. While it's correct to say "police obtain tracking data without a warrant," it would be more correct to say "police obtain tracking data with subpoenas and court orders instead of warrant." The difference being is a cop cannot unilaterally obtain information.

  • They never needed a warrant to "tail" a guy driving round in his car, or "shadow" him walking down the street, so why need one to tail/shadow a cellphone? I don't think any of these events is unreasonable.

    • by girlintraining (1395911) on Monday April 02, 2012 @04:56PM (#39553299)

      They never needed a warrant to "tail" a guy driving round in his car, or "shadow" him walking down the street, so why need one to tail/shadow a cellphone?

      Because I can tail a guy, or "shadow" him walking down the street. Anyone can do those activities in public. Not anyone can eavesdrop on a cell phone which is being used in someone's home, car, etc. Warrants are when the police want to do something an ordinary citizen cannot.

      • by CanHasDIY (1672858) on Monday April 02, 2012 @05:15PM (#39553503) Homepage Journal

        Because I can tail a guy, or "shadow" him walking down the street. Anyone can do those activities in public. Not anyone can eavesdrop on a cell phone which is being used in someone's home, car, etc. Warrants are when the police want to do something an ordinary citizen cannot.

        Not exactly; the reason it's illegal is not because "ordinary citizens cannot" track cell phones (especially considering that with deep enough pockets, an 'ordinary citizen' very much can track any cell phone), but rather because a cell phone, being a privately owned, personal communication device, falls under the category of "personal effects" and possibly "papers" (as both are used for communication) and thus is subject to protection under the 4th Amendment.

        • by cbope (130292)

          As in 4th amendment of the Constitution? I thought that was ripped to shreds over the past 11 years...

          Seriously though, if more US citizens really understood the Constitution and how much we've lost in the last 11 years since 9/11, there would be more outcry. Far too many people are willing to give up their rights granted in the Constitution and Bill of Rights in the name of "security" or "terrorism". Both are false reasons to lay down your rights and surrender all control to the government, in fact you sho

    • by surmak (1238244) on Monday April 02, 2012 @05:00PM (#39553333)

      They never needed a warrant to "tail" a guy driving round in his car, or "shadow" him walking down the street, so why need one to tail/shadow a cellphone? I don't think any of these events is unreasonable.

      The best argument against this is that trailing a person requires resources (the cop), and has an opportunity cost for the police. They are not going to tail someone without a (hopefully good) reason. If, on the other hand, they engage in mass surveillance with minimal cost cost per victim, that eliminates the cost for the police to engage in such behavior.

      • by The Wild Norseman (1404891) <tw.norseman@gmail. c o m> on Monday April 02, 2012 @05:29PM (#39553671)

        The best argument against this is that trailing a person requires resources (the cop), and has an opportunity cost for the police. They are not going to tail someone without a (hopefully good) reason. If, on the other hand, they engage in mass surveillance with minimal cost cost per victim, that eliminates the cost for the police to engage in such behavior.

        The point needs to be made that, absent probable cause or reasonable articulable suspicion, the police/government has no authority to track anyone. So instead of you and I "hoping" that they can't follow us without a good reason (and thus, by extension, "hoping" that they won't abuse the privilege), they are first required to have a good reason before being allowed to follow us.

        • by surmak (1238244)

          The point needs to be made that, absent probable cause or reasonable articulable suspicion, the police/government has no authority to track anyone. So instead of you and I "hoping" that they can't follow us without a good reason (and thus, by extension, "hoping" that they won't abuse the privilege), they are first required to have a good reason before being allowed to follow us.

          I was referring to that case where a police officer follows someone out in the open, on public streets. In that case, the cops have as much freedom of movement as anyone else does. If they were to trespass on private property, or take any other action that would be illegal for a normal civilian to take (wiretaps, access to any non-public corporate data, tampering with someone vehicle to attach a tracking device, etc.) then yes, they should have to get a warrant.

          • I think you and I don't have much in the way of a disagreement. I'm saying, however, that the police are not as free in this manner as another citizen would be. Due to the special powers granted to them on behalf of the people of the United States, they have to abide by certain rules that the rest of the population does not.

            Accordingly, I do not believe that police are allowed to do so. That they do, irrespective of the constitutionality of the behavior, is irrelevant to my point.

    • by The Wild Norseman (1404891) <tw.norseman@gmail. c o m> on Monday April 02, 2012 @05:01PM (#39553343)

      They never needed a warrant to "tail" a guy driving round in his car, or "shadow" him walking down the street, so why need one to tail/shadow a cellphone? I don't think any of these events is unreasonable.

      I think they are unreasonable; absent reasonable articulable suspicion that someone is committing or is about to commit a crime, then there is no legal justification for any kind of tracking whatsoever.

      Why people seem to think -- or have fallen for -- the absurdity that the constitution outlines the only rights we have and not as a curb on governmental powers is beyond me.

      All together now -- ABSENT REASONABLE ARTICULABLE SUSPICION OR PROBABLE CAUSE, THE GOVERNMENT HAS NO RIGHT TO ACT. It matters not that computers are fast enough to scan a billion license plates per hour, or that certain activities do not carry an expectation of privacy. That's the sugary lie that is used to get us to swallow the ultimate poison of the police state.

      • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

        by Anonymous Coward

        I think they are unreasonable; absent reasonable articulable suspicion that someone is committing or is about to commit a crime, then there is no legal justification for any kind of tracking whatsoever.

        Well, the obvious solution is to make more things illegal.

      • by cpu6502 (1960974)

        Perhaps we should delete the word "unreasonable" from the 4th amendment, in order to remove the police's ability to justify everything (including patdowns in airports, train terminals, and other random VIPR locations).

    • by Hatta (162192)

      A citizen can "tail" any other citizen driving around in his car, or "shadow" him walking down the street. Therefore, no extra authority is needed for a police officer to do the same.

      Can a citizen (say, me) engage in cell phone tracking of another citizen (say, you)? If so, please tell me how. If not, explain why we should grant cops this extra power without court oversight?

    • by miltonw (892065) on Monday April 02, 2012 @06:49PM (#39554601)
      Actually, the police, and the government in general, must have more checks in place than the average citizen -- because the police and the government have so much more power than the average citizen.

      The founders had it right, we citizens must have powerful checks against government/police abuse or we will lose all our freedoms.
    • by profplump (309017)

      A) Because a warrant has always been needed to follow someone on private property. Unless your cell phone knows to stop sending location data to the cops as soon as you walk out of public view then it's a new power that the cops didn't have before, to observe your actions when you have a reasonable expectation of privacy.

      B) Because the effort required to physically follow someone acts as a balance; the labor costs associated with manually tracking a person discourage the police from engaging in widespread o

    • They never needed a warrant to "tail" a guy driving round in his car, or "shadow" him walking down the street, so why need one to tail/shadow a cellphone? I don't think any of these events is unreasonable.

      My biggest problem with this oft-cited logic is that:
      a) It takes considerable effort to "tail a guy". You really want to know what "he's" up to. vs the electronic version that is virtually "free".

      b) You can't retrospectively "tail a guy" in real life.

      c) The real life situation has boundaries. You can't follow them in private settings, not so the electronic version.

      d) The "target" of the surveillance has the opportunity to observe the "observation". Remember, they are innocent till proven guilty in most

  • by MobyDisk (75490) on Monday April 02, 2012 @04:55PM (#39553293) Homepage

    From the report:

    Each provider has a different system for authorizing police use of location information and we comply with whatever that cell phone provider requests.

    How does law enforcement make a request to track a cell phone? Is it a phone call? A web-based system? If cell companies are giving out this information without warrants, hopefully they have some security to prevent someone from impersonating a police officer and tracking someone.

    A limitation of the US Constitution is that it requires the government to get warrants for things, but it does not force civilians to ask for those warrants. So if companies or individuals voluntarily choose to provide this information then there is no need to obtain a warrant. People must make a stand if they really care. But what incentive do corporations have to do this?

    • by girlintraining (1395911) on Monday April 02, 2012 @05:02PM (#39553351)

      So if companies or individuals voluntarily choose to provide this information then there is no need to obtain a warrant. People must make a stand if they really care. But what incentive do corporations have to do this?

      They can only provide that information if it is not solicited, otherwise it is inadmissible as evidence. So when the police decide to monitor someone's cell phone without a warrant, they are giving that evidence up -- it can't be used. But if in the course of listening to that cell phone they discover an opportunity to observe someone engaged in illegal activity, then the police can simply "happen" to be sitting in a van next door when the crime takes place. Of course, with the Patriot Act et al and our new conservative supreme court, that evidence can sometimes be given post facto approval and then used against a person.

      But.. that's how it used to work; So long as the police only presented a chain of evidence based on observations and reasonable cause for any evidence obtained, it was okay; There might have been more evidence, but it couldn't be used or presented... That is how the system ensured justice. So it has always been okay to bend the rules -- but only recently has it been okay to not have any.

      • by Obfuscant (592200)

        So when the police decide to monitor someone's cell phone without a warrant, they are giving that evidence up -- it can't be used. But if in the course of listening to that cell phone

        You're conflating tracking with listening. Two very different things, and two very different levels of request. I looked at TFA and it doesn't say "listening" from what I saw, only tracking, and it doesn't differentiate tracking for criminal prosecution from tracking for health and safety.

    • by Obfuscant (592200)

      How does law enforcement make a request to track a cell phone? Is it a phone call? A web-based system?

      For the carriers I am familiar with, there is a form that needs to be faxed with an official signature. I think a police dispatcher signature is sufficient, maybe it takes a dispatch supervisor. At that point, you can talk to the technical people to get the info you need.

      A limitation of the US Constitution is that it requires the government to get warrants for things,

      "Dear Judge: there is a lost hiker in the coastal range, somewhere to the west of Eugene. He called his girlfriend to get help but didn't have enough battery left to call 911. We know his cell number but not his location, and he didn't kn

      • by IonOtter (629215)

        Oh, how nice.

        1 case of search & rescue in Eugene, Wa, where some mushroom hunter gets a free ride home.

        Meanwhile, there are a couple thousand cases of abuse per day across the entire US.

        I see you have your papers with you at all times, Citizen. Well done, the Computer is pleased.

        • some mushroom hunter gets a free ride home.

          If ever there was a slashdot post that was in dire need of a "whoosh" reply, the parent is it.

      • by MobyDisk (75490)

        Firemen don't get a warrant to knock down the door to put out a fire either. I don't think either example violates the 4th amendment. If you think it does, I suggest proposing an amendment to fix that.

        • by Obfuscant (592200)

          Firemen don't get a warrant to knock down the door to put out a fire either. I don't think either example violates the 4th amendment. If you think it does, I suggest proposing an amendment to fix that.

          You're right, firemen can bust right in. But then, there is no law that says that firemen must get a warrant to enter a burning building. The proposed law says that police must get a warrant to get tracking info. While the 4th amendment might allow warrantless tracking in the case of lost persons, a law can override that and require it.

    • If cell companies are giving out this information without warrants, hopefully they have some security to prevent someone from impersonating a police officer and tracking someone.

      Is that the only problem you see with this?

      In California, any police officer can already pull up any person's medical prescriptions just for curiosity's sake (and not just controlled substances, they get access to every prescription ever written for that person). In other words, anytime a police officer is interested in dating somebody, that officer can just pull up that person's prescriptions and infer all kinds of things about that person's mental health status, birth control prescriptions, sexual activit

      • by MobyDisk (75490)

        In California, any police officer can already pull up any person's medical prescription

        In my state, I do not need a medical prescription to get cell phone service.

    • by cstacy (534252)

      How does law enforcement make a request to track a cell phone? Is it a phone call? A web-based system?

      http://yro.slashdot.org/story/12/04/01/1754231/aclu-obtains-cell-phone-tracking-training-materials [slashdot.org]

    • They go to a judge and get a warrant. The warrant is then presented to the carrier. Pre-cell phone days, the Federal building in every major city was located right across the street from the LEC central office just for this reason.
  • No surprise (Score:4, Insightful)

    by macwhizkid (864124) on Monday April 02, 2012 @05:04PM (#39553381)

    When the iPhone "Find My Friends" app came out last year, I was rather surprised by how many people were opposed to it and refused to share information. "I don't want other people to know where I am all the time" was the most common complaint.

    My response at the time was, "do you really think the police/federal government/big telecoms can't already track you?"

    If you're going somewhere you don't want other people to know about, leave your phone at home.

  • by swillden (191260) <shawn-ds@willden.org> on Monday April 02, 2012 @05:08PM (#39553439) Homepage Journal

    My teenage daughter suffers from a severe emotional disorder [wikipedia.org] and when in a bad emotional state is often a danger to herself and others, so when she beat up my wife, locked her in the basement, stole the car and ran away, I asked the local PD to track her phone. They said they could only do it with a court order and that would take 24 hours -- way too long. Even when I pointed out that the phone was actually mine -- I bought it and I pay the bill -- they still said they couldn't.

    In general, I heartily aprove of requiring court approval for such things, but it seems like in a case where it might literally be the difference between life and death for a young woman with a record of suicide attempts and who has committed serious crimes (assault, unlawful imprisonment, grand theft auto, driving without a license) and where the owner of the phone not only approved but requested that it be tracked, they should do it. I also asked the wireless carrier (Verizon) and they said they would only do it if the police requested.

    (The outcome of the story was that I had a pretty good guess about where she was headed and I found her within a few hours, about 60 miles from home. The police then caught her and took her to the ER for suicide watch and psychiatric evaluation. I didn't find where she ditched the car until a couple of days later. It required about $2K in repairs. I wish my daughter could be "repaired" so cheaply and effectively.)

    • by Anonymous Coward

      Most smart phones have a 'find my phone' feature that you can enable. Then you can log in to a webpage remotely to see where the device is currently located.

      I'd suggest this for you since it requires 0 red tape or cooperation from local police.

      • by swillden (191260)

        Most smart phones have a 'find my phone' feature that you can enable. Then you can log in to a webpage remotely to see where the device is currently located.

        I'd suggest this for you since it requires 0 red tape or cooperation from local police.

        Yeah, but her phone isn't a smartphone -- for good reasons, also related to her condition.

        • by ATMAvatar (648864)
          Did you try contacting your phone service provider? They are under no such legal restraints, and it could be a PR win for them if it was a serious situation like that.
    • by Elldallan (901501)
      Law enforcement should not have easy access to a persons medical journal and thus should not know that the person is considered a suicide risk.
      Thus the crimes you point out should be the same as any other crime and thus require a warrant.
      Even if you are the owner of the phone it is not your privacy that is being invaded so no your opinion should not matter at all.

      What you should be able to do is go to a court and have an expert testify in the presence of a judge whether your daughter at that very moment
      • by swillden (191260)

        Law enforcement should not have easy access to a persons medical journal and thus should not know that the person is considered a suicide risk.

        These police officers had already taken her to the ER for suicide watch twice before. Her history is very well documented.

        Even if you are the owner of the phone it is not your privacy that is being invaded so no your opinion should not matter at all.

        If nothing else, they should be able to track the phone in order to recover my stolen property.

        • by tibit (1762298)

          I know that it must be crushing to a parent to have a kid commit suicide, but just maybe, just maybe, her suicide would end her suffering? Wouldn't that be a better outcome in a grand scheme of things? She is obviously in a distress. She is not a terminally ill cancer patient who begs for euthanasia, yet her suffering may be homologous to that caused by physical pain. I think there's a point at which people become irrational and self-centered when preventing others from dying. I can't judge if it's so in t

          • by swillden (191260)
            Her death would definitely make things easier on us, but if she can get through the next few years she will recover so, no, it's not the best option.
            • by tibit (1762298)

              If the recovery is not out of the question then I agree -- it's worth the effort.

  • So I clicked the source link which then had a US map with FOI requests sent to different states. I clicky Mssouri (I live there) and there is a request from Green Co.. not where I live.. but in the ball park.. then I click the response from the Sherrif's legal counsel which said..for each question..around 10 or so.. we dont keep those records and have no way to know or search for this info.

    At the end they said.. if you have a certain time frame or case you'd like us to look into.. send us a request or give
  • by CanHasDIY (1672858) on Monday April 02, 2012 @05:23PM (#39553575) Homepage Journal
    And aside the fact they respond to every single inquiry with "We don't keep records of that," I found the final paragraph quite telling:

    In addition to our response that we do not collect or retain lists that state if and when cell phone records were obtained during an investigation, none of your inquiries are for an "arrest report," an "incident report," or an "investigative report," pursuant to Missouri Statute Section 610.100, and therefore are not open records pursuant to the Sunshine Law.

    In other words, you were vague enough in your request that we can legally tell you to fuck off, so... fuck off.
    Continued:

    Further, your inquiries contain no time frames or specific cases. If you were able to more narrowly tailor your inquiries to a specific case(s) during a specific time frame(s), I would be able to research whether cell phone location records were utilized in one or more specific cases. As it stands, your requests are limitless and we possess no mechanism to search our entire data base for the presence of cell phone location records.

    Really? "no mechanism" to search a database? Doesn't that kind of defeat the purpose of building a damn database in the first place?

  • I looked at the response for Cary, NC? Sweet little dodge in there...

    Several records that might arguably be responsive to your request are copyrighted materials. They are Arrest, Search and Investigation in North Carolina and Cell Phone Technology for Criminal investigations.

    The Town is unable to make copies of copyrighted materials. You may inspect these copyrighted records in the Cary Police Department during normal business hours. Please call (919)469-4017 to schedule a date and time for such inspectio

  • by Anonymous Coward

    It's good to see this troll of a non-story link-bait only has 51 comments.

    I mean, at some point, the turd has stagnated itself to the point it's indistinguishable from the ground it lies on.

    (it's okay to mod insightful)

  • The biggest threat to life and liberty is the State. Israel has killed more civilians than Hamas, the US has killed more civilians than Al-Quaeda.
    The US constitution, despite its age, can be a strong limit on state power. But all three branches of government have to have principled people in them who are willing to enforce the constitution, not look the other way like they did during the internment of Japanese-origin Americans or the "rendition" to torture of Canadians and Americans of Arab origin.

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