Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Cell Phone GPS Tracking is no Longer a Tool Just for the Feds

     The ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) has recently released documents to The New York Times which contain information that many Americans are finding quite troubling. The 5,500 pages of internal records which were recently released contain information gathered from 205 police departments across the country on the subject of the use of cell phone GPS tracking. Once thought to be available only to certain federal agencies this comprehensive set of documents now shows that in more recent times cell phone tracking has become a widely used tool for local police departments as well, both large and small. To me the possibility of law enforcement officials using individual's cell phones as tracking/monitoring devices is old news that is common knowledge to anyone with a smart phone these days. So what information did the ACLU come across that is troubling so many across the country? The answer is that many of these local departments are implementing such technology with little to safeguards, all the while doing their best to keep the public ignorant of such practices. Even more troubling is that wireless service providers are also getting in on the action, with some going as far to offer police departments "surveillance fees" to find locations and trace cell phone calls and text messages. The issue with the wireless service providers offering such packages is that they stand to make a profit off of them, and as such they do not require warrants a majority of the time. 

     Of the questioned police departments there seemed to be three main responses to the question of whether warrants were sought after or not before using cell phone tracking. Some departments simply answered outright that they did not seek warrants, such as the police in Lincoln, Nebraska who acknowledged that they often obtained precise GPS location data without even demonstrating probable cause. A similar scenario was seen in Wilson County, North Carolina where the officers admitted to obtaining historical cell phone tracking data in situations which were "relevant" to an investigation. The standard of relevancy in which they are referring to is one that is even lower than probable cause. The second group of departments either flat our refused to answer questions on the issue or just simply ignored it all together. These departments seem to be raising the most alarm as they are giving the impression that they are implementing such tactics in ways they do not wish the public to have knowledge of. There were also a small number of departments of brushed off the question, referring the questioner to the individual service providers for answers. These departments stated that they simply follow the guidelines for obtaining such information that are set forth by the service providers. I know that this is troublesome to me because when service providers stand to make profits on providing such information I would not trust mine to demand a warrant first. I assume that I am not alone in having such concerns as well, especially since when the ACLU examined the policy manuals for individual service providers they discovered that many of them expressly state they do not require warrants. 

     Similar examinations were done on the individual police department manuals as well, which revealed that many listed cell phone tracking as a tool. However, these manuals also warn that the use of such technology should not be mentioned or discussed with the public or the media because of the potential backlash that could arise, especially from warrantless tracking. These departments knew of the issues that could arise if such information was released to individuals living in their towns, and in return simply implemented policy through their manuals which told officers to keep from mentioning such practices out of their reports. I think what it comes down to when using such technology without warrants is the violation of Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches and seizures. A similar case occurred in January when the Supreme Court ruled that a GPS tracking device which was placed on a suspected drug dealers car was an unreasonable search. 

      A GPS tracking device

     All of this is not to say that cell phone tracking should never be used, as it has saved lives and holds the potential to save many more. In February for instance, police in Michigan were able to locate and save the victim of a stabbing incident who was hiding from his attacker in a basement by tracking his cell phone location. There have been many other positive instances as well were lost/taken children have been found, and other stranded individuals have been rescued. These real life benefits are what police departments are citing as a defense for their actions, stating that such benefits outweigh the legal questions. The benefits for such technology are great, but the fact remains that the extreme risk for potential abuse looms large especially in situations where such information is being gathered with the absence of warrants. 







  1. I really like this blog post because this is an issue that comes up daily when I'm having a discussion with my friends. Should the police be able to track someone through their phone via GPS? My answer is no because this is an evasion of privacy as well as a direct violation of the 4th amendment. Police are always trying to use innovative ways to save lives and i'm all for it but tracking someone through a device that they have full privacy is illegal. I have it. The government is already listening in on people's cell phone calls and now they have the ability to know where every cell phone is in the country. This is madness. This is not the complete story however. The worst part is the fact that they have decided to keep this a secret. The cell phone companies don't let the contractors know this because it would lower cell phone usage. I'm sure there have been instances where this technique has saved lives but this is a violation. The legal issues outweigh the benefit on all levels. This makes some people afraid to use their cell phones because they know they are being tracked. This is just another way for the government to violate another one of our amendments. Pretty soon this government will have limits on all of our basic rights.

  2. I would DEFINITELY agree with this blog. I feel that the government should not be able to use GPS tracking on a phone unless it is warranted by a magistrate. As Darius said, if they do not have a warrant then it is a direct violation of the 4th amendment. I can see many issue with government using phones to track peoples locations, phone calls, and even texts. I am personally indifferent on the issue because I have nothing to hide. However, I do understand people's concerns with the infringement of their rights. With the technology that is currently developing and technology that has been recently developed I am curious to see what further actions our US Supreme Court will take regarding this issue.

  3. I agree with the two comments. If this passes as constitutional and the government is able to track many people then what is to stop them from ticketing us from speeding based on the GPS information? There are way too many complications with using this kind of technology to track the location of unwarranted people.

  4. I normally do not like to use the slippery slope argument but this situation seems appropriate. Actually I believe using GPS is wrong to begin with but can even lead to more loss of freedom and privacy. Personally I enjoy my privacy and do not enjoy the idea that someone can track me at all times if they wish. The Iphones of today store mass amounts of data about users including where they have been. Although police may lick their chops about all the possible information they can easily discover i believe it would most definitely violate the constitution to do so.

  5. This post highlights why, unless I am traveling and need GPS, I always have my GPS turned off. This is not because I have a guilty conscious but because you never know who is watching you or keeping tabs on you these days. It seems with each new technological advance, our constitutional rights are being hindered and trimmed. But there is another side to the argument, GPS has, in fact, saved many lives and that is definitely a good thing. GPS has also made it easier for law enforcement agencies to keep tabs on suspects and convicted felons. The average law abiding citizen has little to fear with possible GPS tracking, but in a way it is hindering our privacy. This topic will continue to gain steam and criticism until higher courts decide to deal with the matter and find whether or not it is constitutional or not.