Police Routinely Abuse Cellphone Tracking


The ACLU has released thousands of pages of documents to the New York Times that show that local police departments are routinely using cellphone tracking with almost no judicial oversight — and cell phone companies are making a lot of money as a result.

The internal documents, which were provided to The New York Times, open a window into a cloak-and-dagger practice that police officials are wary about discussing publicly. While cell tracking by local police departments has received some limited public attention in the last few years, the A.C.L.U. documents show that the practice is in much wider use — with far looser safeguards — than officials have previously acknowledged.

The issue has taken on new legal urgency in light of a Supreme Court ruling in January finding that a Global Positioning System tracking device placed on a drug suspect’s car violated his Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches. While the ruling did not directly involve cellphones — many of which also include GPS locators — it raised questions about the standards for cellphone tracking, lawyers say.

The police records show many departments struggling to understand and abide by the legal complexities of cellphone tracking, even as they work to exploit the technology.

In cities in Nevada, North Carolina and other states, police departments have gotten wireless carriers to track cellphone signals back to cell towers as part of nonemergency investigations to identify all the callers using a particular tower, records show.

In California, state prosecutors advised local police departments on ways to get carriers to “clone” a phone and download text messages while it is turned off.

In Ogden, Utah, when the Sheriff’s Department wants information on a cellphone, it leaves it up to the carrier to determine what the sheriff must provide. “Some companies ask that when we have time to do so, we obtain court approval for the tracking request,” the Sheriff’s Department said in a written response to the A.C.L.U.

And in Arizona, even small police departments found cell surveillance so valuable that they acquired their own tracking equipment to avoid the time and expense of having the phone companies carry out the operations for them. The police in the town of Gilbert, for one, spent $244,000 on such equipment.

Cell carriers, staffed with special law enforcement liaison teams, charge police departments from a few hundred dollars for locating a phone to more than $2,200 for a full-scale wiretap of a suspect, records show…

Many departments try to keep cell tracking secret, the documents show, because of possible backlash from the public and legal problems. Although there is no evidence that the police have listened to phone calls without warrants, some defense lawyers have challenged other kinds of evidence gained through warrantless cell tracking.

“Do not mention to the public or the media the use of cellphone technology or equipment used to locate the targeted subject,” the Iowa City Police Department warned officers in one training manual. It should also be kept out of police reports, it advised.

In Nevada, a training manual warned officers that using cell tracing to locate someone without a warrant “IS ONLY AUTHORIZED FOR LIFE-THREATENING EMERGENCIES!!” The practice, it said, had been “misused” in some standard investigations to collect information the police did not have the authority to collect.

“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 advisory said. “Continued misuse by law enforcement agencies will undoubtedly backfire.”

The standard here should be very simple. So simple that you can find it right there in the Fourth Amendment: If you want to track someone’s cell phone, you have to get a warrant unless it’s an emergency situation (finding a missing child, for example). If the tracking is necessary as part of a criminal investigation, then go to court and show probable cause to a judge. If you can’t or won’t do that, you don’t get to engage in a search. That’s what the constitution requires.

Comments

  1. Pteryxx says

    “Do not mention to the public or the media the use of cellphone technology or equipment used to locate the targeted subject,” the Iowa City Police Department warned officers in one training manual. It should also be kept out of police reports, it advised.

    FFFFFFF

  2. illdoittomorrow says

    And under the Real True Conservative Party’s Bill C-30 (dramatically named the Protecting Children from Internet Predators Act), we can expect the same abuse and corruption to be exported to Canada.

  3. frog says

    naturalcynic:

    On L&O they usually have the cops get a warrant. However, there are big differences between the earlier seasons and the later ones.

    The differences are not just because of changes in law (e.g., the Patriot Act), but on a strictly writing-and-plotting level. In the older seasons, they at least make a show of using evidence and procedure to prosecute. In later seasons, the ADAs win the case by magically causing the defendant to blurt out a confession.

  4. says

    illdoittomorrow “And under the Real True Conservative Party’s Bill C-30 (dramatically named the Protecting Children from Internet Predators Act), we can expect the same abuse and corruption to be exported to Canada.”
    Hah! Take that, foreign country whose in-power party stays in power because the opposition parties, who can’t seem to gin up outrage over the excesses, farts and missteps of the party in charge(*1), can’t seem to locate leaders that anyone will remember for more than a couple of what were we talking about again?

    *1. Seriously, the Lib gov’t was basically brought down over $100M given to “friendly” companies, while the current one is only starting to be scratched by “misunderestimating” the cost of a $15B contract for F35s by $15B(*2).
    *2. …which is a lot of money in Canada. To illustrate, that’s half the budget for painting all the maple leaves (“leafs”, in Toronto) red every autumn.

  5. JustaTech says

    This makes me think of that show “Person of Interest” which has a magical computer that has hacked all communication lines and looks for terroists and violent crimes (but the governement only uses the terrorist stuff, so our ‘heros’ prevent crimes). That show is all about cloning phones, but I will say that it is all done without the phone companies being involved.

    It’s one of those interesting shows where I have major philosphical objections to the central premise.

  6. Trebuchet says

    Haven’t they been doing this for years on Law & Order?

    As Frog noted, it’s not near so bad on L&O as on NCIS, where they do it in virtually every episode, as well as routinely and illegally hacking into private and governmental computers and sending anybody they don’t like to Gitmo. For some reason, I enjoy the show anyhow.

  7. says

    I have noticed the shows such as NCIS and NCIS Los Angeles are the most egregious in using cell phone data, banking records, health records without warrants. I often wonder how they ever manage to get convictions in a proper court.

  8. timberwoof says

    I’m astonished at how often it’s reported that the cops are trying to keep their activities secret. This means they know that what they’re doing is illegal … at least until they get a favorable Supreme Court ruling.

  9. slc1 says

    Relative to cell phone tracking, anyone who is bent out of shape by someone tracking their movements should pull the batteries out of the phone, except when in use. Can’t track if there is no signal.

  10. eric says

    I’m astonished at how often it’s reported that the cops are trying to keep their activities secret. This means they know that what they’re doing is illegal…

    Maybe. There’s several other reasonable explanations for PD secrecy.

    (1) They think media coverage will be so negative, it will cause their political bosses to order them to stop doing it even if its legal, for fear of losing reelection or being associated with the technique.
    (2) They think its currently a legal gray area, but media coverage will result in legislators drawing a bright line on what’s allowed and what isn’t.
    (3) They think its legal but easily prevented, and they think if the media covers it, some expert will pipe up and tell the public (including criminals) how to prevent such tracking.

  11. says

    slc1 @ 12,

    True, they can’t track if the phone is off, but they can read text messages, look for calls to that phone, possibly even use uploaded data to get the movement history of the phone, all that kind of good stuff.

  12. grizzle says

    I haven’t heard the phrase “cloning a cell phone” since HBO’s ‘The Wire’. Great show if you’ve never seen it.

  13. RW Ahrens says

    #9, NCIS is about a NAVY investigative service, which is investigating military crime. Military rules of evidence are different from civilian, and fewer civil rights are observed in military trials.

    They aren’t going to civilian courts.

  14. says

    I wonder how those cases have held up in court. As Ed points out, the Supreme Court did strike down the case of the drug dealer/GPS Transponder. It would seem to me that tracking people’s cell phones would be a basic violation of the Fourth Amendment. Then again, we should know by now that the Conservatives do not really value the Constitution except for when it benefits them. Otherwise they just trample all over it and attempt to spin things to their advantage.

  15. slc1 says

    Re ogremk5 @ #15

    I don’t own a cell phone but it is my information that they can still track it, even if it is turned off. As I understand it, the only way to shut off the tracking ability is to remove the batteries.

  16. says

    Yes, but the article specifically mentions all the other illegal things that they can do, even if the phone is turned off.

  17. charlesbaer says

    Regarding tracking, the Supremes focused on LE’s trespassing to install the transponder. Cell phone GPSs are built-in. LE will argue that they are doing the equivalent of following someone voluntarily wearing a large feathered cap.

    Might work this time.

  18. Pinky says

    Slc1 said:

    Relative to cell phone tracking, anyone who is bent out of shape by someone tracking their movements should pull the batteries out of the phone, except when in use. Can’t track if there is no signal.

    That sounds a lot like “If you’re not guilty, what are you worried about.”

    To extrapolate from Slc1’s logic; We should not gripe when the police search our homes or cars without a warrant because we did not have sufficient locks that kept them from breaking in by using high tech equipment, expert training and brute force.

    Damn, what am I thinking about, isn’t what I just wrote already being practiced under the Patriot Act?

    Baal said:

    Were on a fast slouch to a police state.

    I don’t think we are slouching towards a police state, its already here.

    Its all over but the shouting.

    Now would be the time to throw a few monkey wrenches. In a strictly legal manner of course.

  19. sosw says

    What would happen in the US if the companies flat out refused to co-operate unless there was a valid warrant/court order?

    I used to work for an organization that was occasionally asked by police to monitor certain individuals, which would be illegal either for us or the police to do without a court order. We would refuse, and would not hear back from them again.

    Do the corporations co-operate with the police out of fear of potential consequences, because of blind obedience to authority or simply because they don’t care?

  20. says

    sosw “I used to work for an organization that was occasionally asked by police to monitor certain individuals, which would be illegal either for us or the police to do without a court order. We would refuse, and would not hear back from them again.”
    You were clearly not employed by a good Corporate Citizen, devoid of normative values, beholden only to maximize returns for shareholders.

    “Do the corporations co-operate with the police out of fear of potential consequences, because of blind obedience to authority or simply because they don’t care?”
    1. “It’s not our ass in the fire if this goes sour. The government is behind us.” (see: Retroactive telecom immunity)
    2. “If we don’t do it, some other company will.”
    3. “Hey! Free money!”

  21. frankenzap says

    Mobile phones CAN NOT be tracked if they are off. The same for retrieving sms/text messages or any other data. People or places that obtain that information only needed to know how to request it.
    Another type of tool that exists for people or organizations that want to listen in can be found at this site:
    http://www.cellularintercept.com/
    ANY electronic communication to or from ANY other device or account is stored in at least one location and has been for over two decades. Additionally, as long as the phone is turned on, people with the proper access can unmute the microphone in a phone and tell that phone to start transmitting on any channel they choose. This means that with the phone on a table or pocket or purse, they can eavesdrop on conversation in the room you are in and the phone will not indicate that it is in use. Understand that and act accordingly. Don’t say anything that you don’t want to come back at you – either by speaking or typing.
    I am not aware of any phones that are active when turned off but, that does not mean that they don’t exist.
    If the receiver is active while turned off, it can be sent any number of commands including transmit room audio.
    I have a flashing battery from the ’90s. When a phone rings, a call is in progress, when the phone is turned on or off, the thing flashes if it is near my phone. Also about every 15 or so minutes it goes off. This is most likely the phone sending the local tower it’s “I am here” message. Getting a device like that will tell you if your phone’s transmitter is on.
    To summarize, remove the battery from your phone if you are concerned and don’t say/send/store anything you shouldn’t.
    Big Brother IS watching.

  22. says

    What would happen in the US if the companies flat out refused to co-operate unless there was a valid warrant/court order?

    They might actually have to pay taxes!

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