The same GPS technology on your cellphone that helps with driving directions may also be used by police to keep tabs on you. According to police documents, cellphone tracking is an increasingly popular practice in law-enforcement agencies. Not only are police obtaining this personal information without warrants, but phone companies are assisting them in this process without notifying their customers.
Whether or not cellphone tracking is legal is not entirely clear. The few existing court decisions on cellphone tracking have been fairly split, with judges taking different stances on whether privacy rights trump the police’s need to obtain sensitive information. “The advances in technology are rapidly outpacing the state of the law,” says ACLU lawyer Catherine Crump.
To investigate this matter, the ACLU requested documentation of cellphone tracking practices from 380 law-enforcement agencies across the country. Just over 200 of the agencies complied with the request, and the findings are alarming. Only 10 of the police departments reported never using cellphone tracking, and many of the agencies admitted to using the technology on a regular basis.
Proponents of cellphone tracking point out that the technology can be used to save lives. In emergency situations, locating a dangerous suspect or missing person quickly can make a difference in some cases. Opponents argue that since regulations on cellphone tracking are nebulous, police are unjustifiably tracking individuals who do not warrant aggressive surveillance.
Alas, it is not as if the phone companies are solely trying to be helpful to law-enforcement officers, they also profit from the practice. Police often pay a phone company hundreds of dollars to pinpoint where a phone is (which is likely in the pocket of its owner), or $2,200 to keep an ongoing wiretap of a suspect. Some law-enforcement agencies are finding these tools so useful that they decided to acquire the technology to do it themselves. The Gilbert, Arizona Police Department essentially cut out the middleman by spending a quarter of a million dollars on equipment to do its own cellphone surveillance.
In January, the Supreme Court ruled on a similar manner in the case of United States v Jones. Justices found that law-enforcement adding a GPS system to a suspect’s car is a violation of Fourth Amendment rights. However, this decision does not necessarily have baring on cellphone tracking. Although the latest models of cellphones often contain GPS devices, the fact that citizens carry these devices willingly changes the circumstances.
Nonetheless, law-enforcement agencies are aware of the murky territory they enter with cellphone tracking and purposefully try to keep it under wraps. “Do not mention to the public or the media the use of cellphone technology or equipment used to locate the targeted subject,” says a training manual for the Iowa City Police Department. Similar content can be found in a Nevada Police training manual. “Some cell carriers have been complying with such requests, but they cannot be expected to continue to do so as it is outside the scope of the law,” the manual reads. “Continued misuse by law enforcement agencies will undoubtedly backfire.”
While information obtained from cellphone tracking is certainly useful to the police, the fact that it comes at the cost of citizens’ privacy is alarming to some. With cellphone tracking’s undefined regulations and a lack of accountability on the police’s part, it seems like only a matter of time until the high courts will have to weigh in on the subject.
Photo Credit: ElvertBarnes