Monday, April 2, 2012

"Police Are Using Phone Tracking as a Routine Tool"

A recent article published in the New York Times ("Police Are Using Phone Tracking as a Routine Tool" by Eric Lichtblau, March 31, 2012) reveals that local police forces - not just the FBI and CIA - are now using cellphone tracking as "a powerful and widely used surveillance tool ... with hundreds of departments, large and small, often using it aggressively with little or no court oversight."

If that's not bad enough, some carriers are profiting at their customers' expense.
The practice has become big business for cellphone companies, too, with a handful of carriers marketing a catalog of “surveillance fees” to police departments to determine a suspect’s location, trace phone calls and texts or provide other services. Some departments log dozens of traces a month for both emergencies and routine investigations.
The police, naturally, claim that the practice saves lives. "Law enforcement officials" contacted by the Times "said the legal questions were outweighed by real-life benefits."
The police in Grand Rapids, Mich., for instance, used a cell locator in February to find a stabbing victim who was in a basement hiding from his attacker.
I assume that the police are mostly tempted to use tools that they find helpful, which is good and proper. But to disregard the legality of such use - that's another matter.

The law in this area is not yet clear, so perhaps the police and the cellphone companies should be given the benefit of the doubt. But I, for one, am unwilling to do so until they convince me that warrants aren't necessary.

Special thanks to the American Civil Liberties Union, which obtained "5,500 pages of internal records ... from 205 police departments nationwide" and provided them to the Times.

Ken Pimple, PAIT Project Director