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April 02, 2012

Warrantless Phone Tracking Persists Despite Jones

Police_traffic_stop400Must-read article from The New York Times this past weekend: "Police Are Using Phone Tracking as a Routine Tool."

The article notes how local law enforcement agencies are increasingly using cell phone tracking without warrants. As most people know, cell phone companies can provide fairly accurate real-time tracking of the phones. The article quotes a police manual: "One police training manual describes cellphones as 'the virtual biographer of our daily activities,' providing a hunting ground for learning contacts and travels."

In Jones, the Supreme Court held that the use of a GPS tracking device placed on a car without a warrant violated the Fourth Amendment. The challenge is that the opinion from the Supreme Court was disjointed &mdash: with some justices reasoning that the use of the device was impermissible because the device violated privacy concerns.

The law, thus, remains unsettled. Many local agencies seem to be erring on the side of obtaining a warrant. But the documents cited by the Times suggest that many agencies continue to attempt to gather this information without a warrant.

A new, perhaps troubling, aspect of the use of cell phone tracking is noted in the article: cell phone companies are charging "surveillance fees" to police departments and presumably making a profit on the practice. The privacy concerns are obvious, and well documented.

But the challenge to those concerned with privacy needs attention, too: the tracking has some unquestionably beneficial public safety uses beyond law enforcements, like emergencies, missing adults and children, and suicide calls.

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