The American Civil Liberties Union is demanding information about how law enforcement agencies use cell phone location data to track people, as the practice becomes more controversial with the rising number of smartphone owners.
ACLU affiliates in several states recently filed open-records requests with police departments to learn how they gather and use tracking data, believing the practice violates people’s constitutional right to privacy. The agency has plans to post the results online, so phone users may see who is using their information and how.
“A detailed history of someone’s movements is extremely personal and is the kind of information the Constitution protects,” said Catherine Crump, staff attorney for the ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project. “Technology is an increasingly powerful way to engage in surveillance.”
As GPS capabilities grow on smartphones, the police gain the ability track more people’s movements without their permission or knowledge. The practice may not change without further government oversight, which the ACLU hopes to encourage.
As a first step, the ACLU’s open-records requests ask local and state agencies obtain warrants before they track mobile phone users, and also ask how much money they spend on tracking.
The DoJ disagrees with the ACLU that using tracking information violates privacy, saying it helps law enforcement agencies fight crime and save lives. Further, the DoJ says police should not have to obtain warrants before they track people’s cell phone location data.
The ACLU sued the U.S. Department of Justice in 2008, and DoJ lawyers are still fighting a 2010 federal ruling that ordered it to provide the ACLU with the information it seeks about tracking.
Ironically, the DoJ stance on mobile location tracking differs from that of many government officials. The mobile phone industry has come under a great deal of scrutiny in recent months, with Congressional hearings on the matter as the government seeks to curb the growing industry trend of gathering personal information on users’ devices. Senators recently targeted Apple and Google about this practice this spring.
“I believe that consumers have a fundamental right to know what data is being collected about them,” said Sen. Al Franken (D., Minn.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee, at one hearing. “I also believe that they have a right to decide whether they want to share that information, and with whom they want to share it and when.”
The ACLU agrees with a proposed bill that would require warrants before police may obtain personal location information. The plan would protect historical and real-time data, and would require customer consent before mobile companies track their location data.
However, as long as law enforcement agencies and the DoJ insist cell phone tracking is a valuable crime fighting tool and should not require warrants, the practice may continue for several more years while ACLU battles with the DoJ.