ACLU Seeks Information on Government Mobile Phone Tracking

News Release: 
Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The ACLU of Washington is seeking to learn when, why and how local law enforcement agencies are using cellphone location data to track Americans. The ACLU-WA today sent out public records requests for this information to the cities of Bellevue, Tacoma, Yakima, and Spokane.

The action is part of a massive coordinated information-seeking campaign. Thirty-four ACLU affiliates across the nation today are sending 379 requests to local law enforcement agencies large and small. 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 cellphone tracking capabilities.

“The ability to access cellphone 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 Brian Alseth, director of the ACLU-WA Technology and Liberty Program. “A detailed history of someone's movements is extremely personal, and government should seek such information only with a warrant based on belief that a person is involved in criminal activities.”

Law enforcement agencies are being asked for information including:

  • whether law enforcement agents demonstrate probable cause and obtain a warrant to access cellphone location data;
  • statistics on how frequently law enforcement agencies obtain cellphone location data;
  • how much money law enforcement agencies spend tracking cellphones and
  • other policies and procedures used for acquiring location data.

Law enforcement’s use of cellphone 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 cellphone 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 cellphones, it could influence the rules police have to follow for cellphone 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.

More information about the requests is available at: