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How Police Can Obtain Personal Cell Phone Data Without a Warrant

Ever wonder what cops learn by reviewing cell phone records, and how easy it is for them to obtain this information without a warrant? Unfortunately, the practice is a common one used by local law enforcement agencies across the country, including police forces in Oklahoma City. Thanks to a recent MSNBC report on the matter, …

Ever wonder what cops learn by reviewing cell phone records, and how easy it is for them to obtain this information without a warrant? Unfortunately, the practice is a common one used by local law enforcement agencies across the country, including police forces in Oklahoma City. Thanks to a recent MSNBC report on the matter, this alarming issue has been made public. MSNBC built a database of thousands of invoices issued by cell phone network providers to cities after cops asked for caller location and other personal information between 2009 and 2011. The database provides a close look at the use of cell phone tracking as a crime-fighting tool, and the potential blow to civil liberties that the requests represent.

Oklahoma City Police Obtain Tracking Data from Cell Phone Carriers

Of the 200 cities that responded to the American Civil Liberties Union’s (ACLU) initial request for the invoices earlier this month, Oklahoma City was one of the three cities that provided enough detail to understand how cell phone tracking data is being used in mid-size police departments across the United States. The thousands of pages of invoices supplied by Oklahoma City and other municipalities offered some insight into how police benefit from using cell phone locations and call records to investigate crimes, and how much carriers can earn by responding to these requests.

Cell Phone Traces: Violation of Civil Liberties?

The ACLU notes that much of the cell phone location data is obtained by police without a warrant, meaning no probable cause hearing before a judge is required. “Location data for cops is like a kid in a candy store,” said Mark Rasch, former head of the Justice Department’s Computer Crime Unit. “It’s a wonderful investigative tool which is highly intrusive of personal liberty and our rules on privacy, and rules governing access to this are not only antiquated but confusing and conflicting.” He continued, “Add to that a profit motive by carriers, and lack of sufficient oversight on law enforcement access to the records, and you have a prescription for, at a minimum, violations of civil liberties.”

And the bills run up by local detectives requesting cell phone data aren’t insignificant. Police in Oklahoma City spent $9,033 on cell phone record checks during one three-month period last year, according to MSNBC’s database. If the data obtained from some states, like Tacoma, Washington, is typical, cell phone companies are earning millions of dollars fulfilling local law enforcement enforcement’s cell phone records requests. More specifically, if Tacoma’s rate of nearly $1 per 10 citizens was extrapolated nationwide, cell phone companies would have billed local police about $30 million for mid-2009 to mid-2011.

Cell Phone Carriers Profit From Tracking Requests

“I think that this data confirms that cellphone trapping is a routine law enforcement practice, not only for serious crimes but for more routine crimes,” said Catherine Crump, the ACLU lawyer who ran its investigation. “It is integrated into the law enforcement’s everyday arsenal, and that makes understanding what data law enforcement uses, and making sure this complies with the Constitution, all the more important.” In Oklahoma City in particular, police received $9,033 in bills for data requests between April and June 2011 alone. One bill from Cox Communication totaled $2,500 for 60 days of “pen register/trap and trace” activity, which would ordinarily suggest that police learned call details, not call content, for every call placed to or from a target phone. During this three-month period, the city made nine other requests for 24 days or longer of pen register/trap and trace data, including four additional requests for 60 days of data. Verizon billed the city $2,446 for five separate invoices dated May 13.

Police Acquiring Personal Information Without a Warrant

This widespread use of cell phone tracking by local police forces is only one example of how the war on crime in Oklahoma and across the country has gone digital. As Rasch pointed out, U.S. officials and citizens haven’t yet settled on the debate about whether cell phone location data is private or public information, further confusing the constitutional issues raised by police tracking cell phone data. Rasch favors a system in which cell phone carriers would be required to inform customers that law enforcement has obtained their location or cell phone call data. And while he supports the use of cell phone tracking to investigate serious crimes, he believes routine use of this data to enforce the law could lead down a slippery path. “Once you say that criminals have no rights, where do you stop?”

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