Police Are Using Phone Tracking as a Routine Tool

Law enforcement tracking of cellphones, once the province mainly of federal agents, has become a powerful and widely used surveillance tool for local police officials, with hundreds of departments, large and small, often using it aggressively with little or no court oversight, documents show.

The practice has become big business for cellphone companies, too, with a handful of carriers marketing a catalog of ”œsurveillance 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.

With cellphones ubiquitous, the police call phone tracing a valuable weapon in emergencies like child abductions and suicide calls and investigations in drug cases and murders. One police training manual describes cellphones as ”œthe virtual biographer of our daily activities,” providing a hunting ground for learning contacts and travels.

But civil liberties advocates say the wider use of cell tracking raises legal and constitutional questions, particularly when the police act without judicial orders. While many departments require warrants to use phone tracking in nonemergencies, others claim broad discretion to get the records on their own, according to 5,500 pages of internal records obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union from 205 police departments nationwide.

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.

3 comments to Police Are Using Phone Tracking as a Routine Tool

  • Raja

    AFP, April 1

    The British government wants to expand its powers to monitor email exchanges and website visits, The Sunday Times newspaper reported.

    Internet companies would be instructed to install hardware to allow the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) — Britain’s electronic “listening” agency” — to go through “on demand” every text message and email sent, websites accessed and phone calls made “in real time, the broadsheet said.

    The plans are expected to be unveiled next month.

    The Home Office said ministers were preparing to legislate “as soon as parliamentary time allows” but said the data to be monitored would not include content.

    [...]

    “Communications data includes time, duration and dialling numbers of a phone call, or an email address.

    “It does not include the content of any phone call or email and it is not the intention of government to make changes to the existing legal basis for the interception of communications.”

  • Raja

    Home Secretary accused of mishandling surveillance proposals

    The Independent, By Nigel Morris, April 4

    Plans to allow the authorities to monitor the online activity of every person in Britain were pushed back last night after being condemned by MPs of all parties.

    The Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, announced that the contentious measures would be published only in draft form and would be subject to widespread consultation – concessions that could delay the proposals for at least a year. In a letter to Mr Clegg published in The Independent today, 17 Liberal Democrat MPs welcomed his intervention but warned him their support could not be taken for granted on the issue.

    A storm erupted this week after it emerged that legislation to allow the police, intelligence services, councils and other public bodies to obtain details of messages sent via Skype and social networks would be included in the Queen’s Speech.

    The disclosure provoked anger among Tory and Liberal Democrat MPs alike, who warned that the proposals contradicted the parties’ opposition to a similar Labour scheme – and were not included in the Coalition Agreement. There have also been recriminations within the Coalition as Liberal Democrats – understood to have been backed by some Tory ministers – accused Theresa May, the Home Secretary, of mishandling the issue.

  • Raja

    New York Times, By Eric Lichtblau, July 8

    Washington – In the first public accounting of its kind, cellphone carriers reported that they responded to a startling 1.3 million demands for subscriber information last year from law enforcement agencies seeking text messages, caller locations and other information in the course of investigations.

    The cellphone carriers’ reports, which come in response to a Congressional inquiry, document an explosion in cellphone surveillance in the last five years, with the companies turning over records thousands of times a day in response to police emergencies, court orders, law enforcement subpoenas and other requests.

    The reports also reveal a sometimes uneasy partnership with law enforcement agencies, with the carriers frequently rejecting demands that they considered legally questionable or unjustified. At least one carrier even referred some inappropriate requests to the F.B.I.

    The information represents the first time data have been collected nationally on the frequency of cell surveillance by law enforcement. The volume of the requests reported by the carriers — which most likely involve several million subscribers — surprised even some officials who have closely followed the growth of cell surveillance.

    “I never expected it to be this massive,” said Representative Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who requested the reports from nine carriers, including AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon, in response to an article in April in The New York Times on law enforcement’s expanded use of cell tracking. Mr. Markey, who is the co-chairman of the Bipartisan Congressional Privacy Caucus, made the carriers’ responses available to The Times.

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