At one time, tracking cell phones in law enforcement was the province of federal agents. Now, however, it has expanded to local police officials, offering a powerful and widely used surveillance tool, with hundreds of departments aggressively using it with almost or no court oversight.
Meanwhile, the practice has morphed into big business for cell phone companies, with a growing number of carriers marketing a suite of “surveillance fees” to police departments to track a suspect’s location, document phone calls and texts, or provide other services. Some departments are logging dozens of traces each month for both routine investigations and emergencies.
With cell phone ownership and use now widespread, police claim that phone tracing is an indispensable weapon in emergencies like child abductions, suicide threats, and investigations in drug cases and murders. One police training manual identifies cell phones as “the virtual biographer of our daily activities,” providing a hunting ground for identifying contacts and movements.
However, civil liberty advocates point out that cell tracking raises legal and constitutional questions, particularly when police act without judicial orders or oversight. According to 5,500 pages of internal records obtained and studied by the American Civil Liberties Union from 205 police departments across the U.S., while many departments require warrants to use phone tracking in non-emergencies, some maintain broad discretion to obtain records on their own.
The internal documents indicate a dubious practice that police officials are hesitant to discuss publicly. While cell tracking by police has received limited media coverage in the past few years, the ACLU documents show that the practice is much more prevalent— and has far fewer safeguards — than officials have previously acknowledged.
The issue gained new urgency in the wake of a January Supreme Court ruling that found a GPS tracking device placed on a drug suspect’s car to be in violation of his Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches. While the ruling did not directly involve cell phones — many of which now include GPS locators — it provoked questions about limitations for cell phone tracking, lawyers say.
For example, in Arizona, even small police departments regard cell surveillance so invaluable that they have procured their own tracking equipment to circumvent the time required to have phone companies carry out operations for them. The police department in Gilbert AZ, for instance, spent a quarter of a million dollars on such equipment.
Cell carriers, on the other hand, are now staffed with special law enforcement liaison teams, and the ACLU’s records show that they bill police departments from a few hundred dollars for locating a phone to over $2,500 for a full-scale wiretap of a suspect.
While most of the police departments cited in the records declined to comment when the New York Times ran a recent story on the trend, other law officials claim that the legal ambiguities are outweighed by life-saving benefits.
The police in Grand Rapids Michigan, for example, used a cell locator in February to locate a stabbing victim who was in a basement hiding from his attacker. According to Roxann Ryan, a criminal analyst with Iowa’s state intelligence branch, “It’s pretty valuable, simply because there are so many people who have cellphones,” she said. “We find people, and it saves lives.”
Yet interview transcripts show that both lawyers and law enforcement officials agree that much uncertainty remains over what information the police are entitled to legally obtain from cell companies, what standards of evidence they must meet before doing so, and when the courts must get involved.
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