Connecticut’s chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union announced this week that it will be participating in a nationwide campaign to determine how law enforcement agencies are using cell phone location tracking capabilities in investigations.
According to an ACLU statement the campaign represents one the largest coordinated freedom of information requests ever undertaken.
Here in Connecticut FOI requests arrived at the fax machines of the Connecticut State Police along with departments in Waterbury, Danbury, Willimantic, New Haven, New London and Berlin.
One question raised in the information requests is whether police need to demonstrate probable cause and get a warrant before accessing the data. The ACLU thinks they should.
“This is very much the same as the government walking into private homes on a fishing expedition, without a warrant, and searching the premises,” said David McGuire, staff attorney for the ACLU of Connecticut. “And technology has made it a whole lot easier.”
State police spokesman Lt. J. Paul Vance said Friday that police do not need a warrant to obtain the tracking data.
He said the capability is a valuable law enforcement tool but was hesitant to talk too much about the process for fear offenders would learn how to avoid police.
However, he said people shouldn’t think law enforcement agencies are using it to invade their privacy.
“We’re not in the business of stepping on people’s civil rights,” he said.
For police using cell phone data to identify someone’s location is just a way of keeping up with the times, he said.
“We use the technology that’s available to us. It’s 21st century policing. We’ve come from pen and paper to the use of electronic devices,” he said.
The ACLU contends the practice is wrong and widespread among agencies, who intentionally keep it out of the public eye.
“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 national 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.”
The hope is that mass-FOI request will reveal how often police are obtaining the location data, how much money agencies are spending on tracking cell phones and what the policies for the practice are around the country, an ACLU statement said.
Vance said the request arrived at a state police fax machine around the same time the press release arrived in his email box. They are looking into the request, he said.
The Berlin police department is of special interest to Connecticut’s ACLU due to an incident following a bank robbery in 2008 where federal investigators obtained data about 180 cell phones and their locations.
“The private calling and location data of 180 people was seized in an act of mass surveillance,” McGuire said. “These people were subjected to an unconstitutional search and never even knew it. If any law enforcement agencies in the state are carrying out similar intrusions, the public should know about it.”
While the capability has existed for years, it’s recently raised some controversy. Both the nation’s high court and legislature have taken steps to address the issue.
Congress is considering an ACLU-backed bill that would require police to get warrants to obtain location information. Meanwhile the Supreme Court will make a decision on whether cops need a warrant to stick a GPS tracking device on someone’s vehicle. That decision could impact policy regarding cell phone tracking, according to the ACLU.
For now the group has issued more than 375 requests to agencies in 31 states to get a better idea of what police are doing with capability. But they are hoping some checks will be placed on the process in the future.
“The Constitution guarantees Americans freedom from unwarranted government intrusion everywhere—in their homes, online and on their cellphones,” said Andrew Schneider, executive director of the Connecticut chapter. “Technology may make it easier for that intrusion to happen, but that’s no excuse for it.”