ACLU: Cops often violate Americans' privacy by warrantless cell phone tracking

If you have a mobile phone, then so long as you are in range of getting a wireless signal, your phone pings a cell phone network tower numerous times per minute. That function cannot be turned off and the "threat to personal privacy presented by this technology is breathtaking." The ACLU warns, "Of all of the recent technological developments that have expanded the surveillance capabilities of law enforcement agencies at the expense of individual privacy, perhaps the most powerful is cell phone location tracking." 


Previously, the ACLU published how long mobile phone providers store data for law enforcement access. Now, after receiving more than 5,500 pages from over 200 local law enforcement agencies about cell phone surveillance, the ACLU found that the "government is routinely violating American's privacy rights through warrantless cell phone tracking." More than likely, this sickens you but does not surprise you . . . especially in light of the feds trying to replace warrantless GPS tracking with warrantless cell phone tracking.

The ACLU added that very few law enforcement agencies "consistently obtain warrants" so mobile phone companies published "manuals for police explaining what data the companies store, how much they charge police to access that data, and what officers need to do to get it."

Some disturbing trends include police departments obtaining all of the cell phone numbers that used a particular cell tower. You have no control over what cell tower your phone uses, so cops snagging such information seems almost like a form of potentially guilty due to location. Other police want all the mobile phone numbers that called a particular cell phone. Is this guilty by association until proven innocent? Still other law enforcement agencies want everything that can be gleaned from a smartphone, including the owner's GPS coordinates.

The phone carriers have turned cell phone surveillance records into a big revenue-producing business. "T-Mobile charges $150 for one hours' worth of data about what phone were near one particular tower" [PDF]. Alltel provides [PDF] a faxed listing of an electronic "Tower Dump" for specific dates and times "at no charge," but "there is a flat rate of $500 per tower for these searches." Verizon Wireless "charges $30-$60 for 15 minutes' worth of tower data."

An invoice from AT&T [PDF] did not specify what services were performed for the $75 hourly rate, but another document [PDF] referencing AT&T Wireless states, "Request a Cell Tower Dump or Cell Site Usage Report to include subscriber Information for the location, date and time frame where the phone was used. There Is a charge of $75 per hour (minimum of 2-4 hours per tower)." AT&T Mobility [PDF] charged $50 per hour with a $200 minimum.

Yet another example is Sprint which charged the Raleigh Police Department [PDF] $50 for a historic tower search and another $30 for precision location called L-Site GPS pings. Lincoln, Neb., is also fond of requesting [PDF] "all cellular phone records and other information; including subscriber information, GPS, precision location, and/or lat/long coordinates."

According to The New York Times, "Cell carriers, staffed with special law enforcement liaison teams, charge police departments from a few hundred dollars for locating a phone to more than $2,200 for a full-scale wiretap of a suspect." But law enforcement in Gilbert, AZ, shelled out $244,195 [PDF] for its own cell phone tracking equipment to get around paying a phone carrier for such mobile surveillance. $150,000 of that came from a State Homeland Security Program grant.

Below are some tidbits from cell phone training documents [PDF] the ACLU acquired through FOIA requests:

If a person has their mobile phone turned off, the wireless carrier holds onto any text messages sent to that person until the phone is turned on (SMS held for usually 72 hours before deleted). On page 13, the suggested solution to grab that text message before it expires is to clone the mobile phone. If the carrier says it can't be done, law enforcement is encouraged "to exert the proper amount of legal and 'other' force (refer to your telephone force continuum training) to make it happen."

Furthermore, for 'covert operators' who like the phone cloning idea and have a "Mission Impossible" bent, page 13 suggests:

A great trick is to remotely "shut down" a subject's cell phone by using a Triggerfish-type unit (the latest man-portable version is the "Kingfish''). Appropriate legal paper should get the cell company to build you a clone of the shut-down phone. Then you could receive all the text messages that would have been sent to that subject (and you could even respond to them). Just be sure you keep his phone shut down.

Page 26 discusses a locked mobile phone that would not download the contents into CelleBrite, a cellular forensic tool that can normally suck all the data out of mobile phones in one-and-a-half minutes. The phone required a Google/Gmail username and password to unlock it, so Google was told to reset and provide the password to law enforcement.

The ACLU noted it's important to point out that some police departments do operate inside the law by showing probable cause and obtaining warrants. The fact that some police abide by the Constitution has proven that "law enforcement agencies can protect Americans' privacy while also meeting law enforcement needs."

Image credit: ACLU

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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