RALEIGH AND NEW YORK – In a massive coordinated information-seeking campaign, American Civil Liberties Union affiliates across the nation today, including the ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation (ACLU-NCLF), are sending requests to local law enforcement agencies large and small demanding to know when, why and how they are using cell phone location data to track Americans. The campaign is one of the largest coordinated information act requests in American history. The requests, being filed under the states' freedom of information laws, are an effort to strip away the secrecy that has surrounded law enforcement use of cell phone tracking capabilities.
“We don’t yet know how widespread this practice is in North Carolina, so we are seeking this information as part of our ongoing efforts to protect the privacy of all North Carolinians,” said Katy Parker, Legal Director for the ACLU-NCLF.
The ACLU-NCLF is sending out requests to all 100 county sheriffs, as well as all police departments in cities and towns with populations of more than 30,000.
“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 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.”
Law enforcement agencies are being asked for information including:
- whether law enforcement agents demonstrate probable cause and obtain a warrant to access cell phone location data;
- statistics on how frequently law enforcement agencies obtain cell phone location data;
- how much money law enforcement agencies spend tracking cell phones and
- other policies and procedures used for acquiring location data.
Law enforcement’s use of cell phone location data has been widespread for years, although it has become increasingly controversial recently. Just last week, the general counsel of the National Security Agency suggested to members of Congress that the NSA might have the authority to collect the location information of American citizens inside the U.S. Also, this spring, researchers revealed that iPhones were collecting and storing location information in unknown files on the phone. Police in Michigan sought information about every cell phone near the site of a planned labor protest.
The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether police need a warrant to place a GPS tracking device on a person's vehicle. While that case does not involve cell phones, it could influence the rules police have to follow for cell phone tracking.
Congress is considering the Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance Act, a bill supported by the ACLU that would require police to get a warrant to obtain personal location information. The bill would protect both historical and real-time location data, and would also require customers' consent for telecommunications companies to collect location data.
Today’s requests are part of the ACLU’s Demand Your dotRights Campaign, the organization’s campaign to make sure that as technology advances, privacy rights are not left behind.