Today, the ACLU of Massachusetts, along with 33 other state-based ACLU affiliates, filed a public records act request to uncover information about warrantless cell phone tracking.
As of December 2010, over 96 percent of the overall population of the United States carried a cell phone—an estimated 302.9 million people. But while Americans have quickly embraced cell phones and the convenience they offer, the widespread use of cell phones has given the government the unprecedented ability to track people’s movements by tracking the geographical location of their cell phones.
What’s revealed by location tracking can be intensely personal. For example, as one court recently wrote, knowing someone’s location can reveal whether a person “is a weekly church goer, a heavy drinker, a regular at the gym, an unfaithful husband, an outpatient receiving medical treatment, an associate of particular individuals or political groups — and not just one such fact about a person, but all such facts.”
Location information is so sensitive that the authorities should only be able to get it by demonstrating probable cause to a judge and getting a warrant – just as they must do to intrude on your privacy in other ways. The Fourth Amendment protects us from unreasonable searches and seizures, and there is nothing reasonable about tracking our movements without the approval of a judge.
Unfortunately, not all police departments agree that probable cause and a warrant are necessary.
That is why the ACLU filed public records act requests to uncover information about warrantless cell phone tracking. We have a right to know about how the police are using cell phones to track people. We want to know:
• Do the police show probable cause and get a warrant to track cell phones?
• How often do the police obtain cell phone location information?
• Once the police get cell phone location information from a cell phone company, do they keep it forever or do they get rid of it after a limited time?
• How much money are the police spending to get cell phone location information?
We’ll keep you posted on what we learn. In the meantime, the ACLU will be continuing to work in the courts, in Congress, in state legislatures across the country, and with companies to better safeguard sensitive location information. We hope you will join us and contact your member of Congress to urge them to support new location privacy bills introduced by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah). This public records request and our efforts in Congress are part of our broader Demand your dotRights Campaign to make sure that as technology advances, our privacy rights are not left behind.