Police Use of Cellphone Tracking Threatens Privacy


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.


Related Stories:

First Amendment Protected; Cellphone Recordings of Police Are Legal

Anyone Can Be Strip Searched, Supreme Court Rules

Own a Cellphone? Be Prepared to Be Tracked


Photo Credit: ElvertBarnes


Karl Murphy
Karl Murphy4 years ago

People like Diana that just 'don't care' are the most dangerous people in our society. It is people like her that will result in the loss of all of our civil liberties.

JR Z.5 years ago

There are solutions but until we get proper legislation
making app developers have you op in instead of opting out, you will never
know what you have downloaded to your mobile device. There will be a
backlash as people learn how their privacy has been compromised.

Using a SilentPocket™ allows you to take control of your
own privacy when it comes to Smartphone tracking. MIAmobi™
addresses this issue and many more problems associated with mobile devices.
With over a million mobile app’s developed for smartphones, many of which are
stealth and are eavesdropping on your every move. Some are capable of turning
on functions on your phone like your mic, camera, GPS, address book and more,
even when it has been turned off. There is only one way to stop this if you
really want to know for sure that you have control of your mobile device is to
block all forms of wifi coming in or going out. Get informed at MIA-mobi.com

MIAmobi also provides a tool to help not only teens but
everyone from being distracted by cell phones. One of these tools is the
SilentPocket. If we start getting people to use the MIAmobi SilentPocket™ “It
will save lives” Out site out of mind. Helps prevents texting and driving.
Voicemail rings, beeps, blings or vibes will not be heard. Voicemail, Texts and
email will be received once the device is taken out of the SilentPocket. MIA-mobi.com

M Larson
M Larson5 years ago

Cell phone tracking/ listening/ downloading programs are readily available online--for ANYONE to use on anyone's cell phone. All they need is your cell #. My pathetic ex-husband has been tracking me for almost 4 years! I've switched phones, numbers, thought I had a private #, yet a lame ass can seem to hear conversations, see all my texts, and who knows what else. If he can do it, any police or government agency can.

After even calling the police, and several "technology" specialists on how to catch/ prove this, no one is able to do anything.

All I want is my freedom from a controlling, freak of a narcissist. It's a hopeless feeling that anyone can monitor you. There isn't a technology (that I've bee able to find) that will help protect someone in my shoes... besides taking the battery out and not being able to have any usage of a cell phone, which leaves me in the dark for wanting to live normally, in a free country.

Walker Bennett
Walker Bennett5 years ago

Be aware that George W. Bush authorized (twice) the GPS tracking and eavesdropping of ALL communications. Also, understand that he also authorized Border Patrol agents to confiscate your cellphones and laptops. If you buy a smartphone or GPS unit, DO NOT give the company your correct address. You can pay any and all bills over the 'Net.

Before I cross any U.S. border, I back up my smartphone and laptop to a secure "cloud" server that is not in the U.S. When I arrive in the U.S., I reload all of my information into spare units. If they think they can spy on me, I can make it almost impossible for them to identify me.

Kimberlee W.
Kimberlee W5 years ago

Hey Diana, when the cops pee on your leg and tell you it's raining, do you believe that too?
You are one nasty-sounding person.

And this article could've included the little factoid that CREDO did NOT cooperate with the Bush wiretaps. And the helpful hint that if you don't want to be on a constant track, disconnect the battery in your cell phone. You can also get one of those blocking wallets like you see sold to protect your credit card numbers from a tracking/copying device.

Steve A.
Steve A5 years ago

Asabe Y. said"
Unlawful cell phone tracking is a violation of Law of privacy. The 4th amendment rule and regulations does not allow anybody to hack into your privacy."

Yep. It's also illegal to exceed the speed limit but it doesn't stop people doing it!

And for those who say 'The only people worried about cameras and phone tracking are those who have something to hide'

Can I put a camera in your bedroom?

I can guarantee I know the answer to that one.

Lynn C.
Lynn C5 years ago

Exactly why I don't own one of them! Well one of the reasons anyway. The other is I don't want to be called at any time, any place and at anybody's whim.

Luvenia V.
Luvenia V5 years ago

Diana S., GOOD for you girl because after all only the GOOD guys will be tracking you and every other American citizen right? The old do worry if you haven’t done anything wrong is getting so old. Tell me how many people do you think were evil when Hitler had them categorized with the help of IBM? To give up ones rights and freedoms willingly is to lose them forever NO matter who sits in power, think about it.

Gloria H.
Gloria H5 years ago

Isn't technology great? Now there is a gizmo that will microwave (just a teeny tiny bit) a person or persons who "get out of line" ready for use in crowd control. So they can use that, and it's ok. Anything to find out what everyone is up to, and keep them all busy coloring within the lines.,`

Diana S.
Diana S5 years ago

Personally, I don't give a flying f**k who's tracking my cellphone. Just like I don't give a crap about who reads my stuff on Myspace or Facebook. I'm not committing any crimes (except for an occasional "lead foot" on the freeway), I'm not planning any nefarious activity, I'm not planning to overthrow the US government, except maybe by a mass popular-vote uprising and tax revolution, to get our current batch of political whores out of office and replaced by a bunch who will work for the people who ELECT and PAY their salaries instead of by big biz, special interest groups, and bible-thumping wackos.

The first time I filed my taxes online, and provided my bank account info for my piddly little refund, my shocked friends warned me "but they can get access to your financial info that way." I replied "they can ALREADY get any info from any bank I've ever dealt with ANYWAY, and all it's going to prove is that I'm AT LEAST as broke as I say I am."

If you can't do the time, don't do the crime - and I'd MUCH rather cut the cops some slack if it means there are going to be MORE perpetrators in prison where they belong, and a helluva lot less of them on the streets where they can endanger ME, my friends, and my family!!!