German law enforcement authorities are sending SMS pings to cell phones to help track criminals, a tool that may be used in the U.S. as courts crack down on phone tracking.
German federal police authorities, as well as the Bundesamt fur Verfassungsschutz, the country’s equivalent of the FBI, were sending silent messages without users being notified.
The pings record handsets’ movement, and the carrier collects the data in a log that can be requested by the government. The pings don’t provide information about the phone such as keystrokes, messages or calls made and received, but they do deliver location data gathered from nearby cell towers that were used when the SMS was sent.
According to Heise Online, a German news source, the nation’s customs sent nearly 250,000 silent SMS pings in the first half of 2011 alone, and in 2010, sent another half million pings.
While there have been no official reports of U.S. law enforcement authorities using SMS pings, many agencies are using “stingray” devices that also track phones’ locations through pinging.
Stingrays work by mimicking a cell tower, getting a phone to connect to it and measuring signals from the phone. It lets the stingray operator “ping,” or send a signal to, a phone and locate it as long as it is powered on.
Stingrays can help police locate suspects and aid search-and-rescue teams in finding people lost in remote areas or buried in rubble after an accident. The devices, which vary in shape can be carried by hand or mounted in cars, are only sold to law-enforcement and government agencies.
Local law enforcement in Minnesota, Arizona, Miami and Durham, N.C., either possess the devices or have considered buying them, according to the Wall Street Journal. The sheriff’s department in Maricopa County, Ariz., reportedly uses the equipment on a monthly basis.
The information stingray-like devices reveal is useful to law enforcement, and supporters argue that information pertains only location, not the contents of conversations, which is addressed by wiretap laws and require a warrant.
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 last year 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.”
However, the Department of Justice backs cell phone tracking, so SMS tracing — which doesn’t leave noticeable signs on a phone — may prove very attractive.
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 has asserted law enforcement may not always have to obtain warrants before they track people’s cell phone location data.
As more people than ever — criminals as well as law-abiding citizens — are using smartphones, methods to track their movements could become even more sophisticated. The SMS ping method could well spread into the U.S. and other countries, leaving phone owners with one more concern about losing their privacy through their cell phones.