ACLU seeks details on government’s phone tracking
In a massive coordinated information-seeking campaign, the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia and 33 other affiliates across the nation today are sending requests to more than 375 local law enforcement agencies large and small demanding to know when, why and how they are using cell phone location data to track Americans. The Virginia affiliate submitted its request to the Fairfax County Police Department.
“Cell phones today are an everyday accessory for most people,” said ACLU of Virginia Legal Director Rebecca Glenberg. “The idea of law enforcement engaging in unfettered cell phone location monitoring of Americans without probable cause or a warrant raises major privacy concerns.”
The campaign is one of the largest coordinated information act requests in American history. The requests, being filed under the states’ freedom of information laws, are an effort to strip away the secrecy that has surrounded law enforcement use of cell phone tracking capabilities.
“The ability to access cell phone location data is an incredibly powerful tool and its use is shrouded in secrecy. The public has a right to know how and under what circumstances their location information is being accessed by the government,” said Catherine Crump, staff attorney for the ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project. “A detailed history of someone’s movements is extremely personal and is the kind of information the Constitution protects.”
Law enforcement agencies are being asked for information including:
· whether law enforcement agents demonstrate probable cause and obtain a warrant to
access cell phone location data;
· statistics on how frequently law enforcement agencies obtain cell phone location data;
· how much money law enforcement agencies spend tracking cell phones and
· other policies and procedures used for acquiring location data.
Law enforcement’s use of cell phone location data has been widespread for years, although it has become increasingly controversial. Just last week, the general counsel of the National Security Agency suggested to members of Congress that the NSA might have the authority to collect the location information of American citizens inside the U.S. Also, this spring, researchers revealed that iPhones were collecting and storing location information in unknown files on the phone.
During the 2011 session, the Virginia General Assembly considered a bill that would prohibit the placement of electronic tracking devices on motor vehicles without the permission of the vehicle’s owner, unless placed by the vehicle manufacturer, law enforcement, or a parent of a minor. The ACLU of Virginia advocated for an amendment requiring law enforcement to first obtain a warrant. The bill passed the House of Delegates, but failed in the Senate Courts of Justice Committee.
While the legislature may again consider such a bill in the 2012 session, it is unlikely to pass one with a case pending in the U.S. Supreme Court. The high court has agreed to decide whether police need a warrant to place a GPS tracking device on a person’s vehicle. While that case does not involve cell phones, it could influence the rules police have to follow for cell phone tracking.
Congress is considering the Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance Act, a bill supported by the ACLU that would require police to get a warrant to obtain personal location information. The bill would protect both historical and real-time location data, and would also require customers’ consent for telecommunications companies to collect location data.
Today’s requests are part of the ACLU’s Demand Your dotRights Campaign, the organization’s campaign to make sure that as technology advances, privacy rights are not left behind.
Requests were also filed by ACLU affiliates in Alabama, Arizona, Northern California, Southern California, San Diego and Imperial Counties, Connecticut, Washington D.C., Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Eastern Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming.