Police Routinely Tracking Cell Phones Without a Warrant Says ACLU

According to legal documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union, virtually all police departments across the U.S. are using cell phone GPS tracking technology to monitor suspects’ whereabouts without first obtaining a warrant.

The ACLU surveyed about 200 state and local law enforcement agencies across the country. Nearly all of the agencies that responded said they track cell phones without obtaining a warrant, reported the Washington Post.

As a result, the ACLU concludes that there are “unclear or inconsistent legal standards from town to town that frequently fall short of probable cause,” questioning whether the practice is constitutional.

In correspondence with the ACLU, the D.C. police acknowledged using cellphone data, including location information, but declined to release the legal standards it uses for obtaining cellphone location records, saying such matters were “law enforcement sensitive” and thus should not be made publicly available.

In Lincoln, Nebraska, police said they can obtain the GPS location of cellphone users “without demonstrating probable cause,” the group said in a statement.

The ACLU says this is a violation of privacy and violates Americans’ Fourth Amendment rights. In January 2012, the Supreme Court ruled that, without a warrant, placing a GPS tracking device on a suspect’s car violated his Fourth Amendment rights against unreasonable searches.

Though the decision marks a clear victory for personal privacy and Fourth Amendment freedom from warrantless searches, it is limited in scope to blocking warrantless use of GPS tracking devices, leaving other forms of digital tracking in a legal grey area.

Congress is considering a bipartisan bill that would require police to obtain a warrant to track cellphones or GPS devices, as well as banning phone companies from sharing such data without their customers’ consent.

“The lack of legal clarity surrounding the use of electronically obtained location data, also known as geolocation information, means that there are no clear rules for how this data can be used, accessed or sold by law enforcement, commercial entities or private citizens,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a co-sponsor of the bill, said in a news release last June when he introduced the bill.