NC Among Tops Nationally for Warrantless Cell-Phone Tracking

Published May 7, 2012

North Carolina counties are among the worst offenders when it comes to employing warrantless global tracking satellite and cell-phone technology to track criminal suspects, an American Civil Liberties Union investigation has found.

According to the ACLU report, the counties are utilizing new technologies to shortcut Fourth Amendment protections against illegal searches and seizures. For example, Chatham County conducted real-time GPS tracking of cell phones under the standard of “reasonable suspicion,” and Wilson County demonstrated a standard lower than probable cause by obtaining cell-tracking data where it is “relevant and material” to an ongoing investigation.

Other North Carolina counties identified by the ACLU as stretching the legal boundaries of allowable searches are Onslow, Apex, and Samson counties.
“The government should have to get a warrant before tracking cell phones,” said Catherine Crump, staff attorney for the ACLU Speech, Privacy, and Technology Project. “That is what is necessary to protect Americans’ privacy, and it is also what is required under the Constitution.”

No Warrant or Court Oversight
Local law enforcement agencies commonly track cell phones as a surveillance tool without a warrant or court oversight, according to the ACLU documents released in March. Documents from more than 200 local law-enforcement agencies obtained by the ACLU through Freedom of Information Act requests revealed many sheriffs and local police track cell phones associated with criminal activity without a warrant.

Although some local agencies were able to report they obtain a warrant before tracking cell phones, an ACLU blog said there are unclear or inconsistent legal standards from town to town that frequently fall short of probable cause. For example, North Carolina’s Onslow County obtains subpoenas for cell-phone records, and the state’s Samson County stated “in the event that we need to obtain cell-phone records from companies we obtain a court order or a subpoena through the District Attorney’s Office.” Apex County also stated it obtained historical cell-site information on a relevance and materiality standard.

Local police departments aren’t the only ones who may be benefiting. The ACLU reported the practice is so common that cell phone companies are profiting in big ways. Many carriers now have manuals for police explaining what data the companies store, how much they charge police for access, and what officers have to do to get the data.

Invoices from cell phone companies indicated North Carolina’s Raleigh County and one other county in the United States supplied the largest quantities of invoices in the nation, with Raleigh tracking hundreds of cells per year.

Detriment to Privacy
The study also reported the scope of information agencies request varies widely from town to town and there is no uniformity in what information can be accessed. For North Carolina, one county, Chatham, asked only for information about one specific telephone. Another, Surry, requested to track every telephone that called or was called by a specific phone. Four counties also reported requesting the ability to receive the cell phone numbers of any individuals located at a particular place during a particular time.

The Supreme Court, the ACLU notes, in U.S. v. Jones ruled prolonged location tracking is considered a search under the Fourth Amendment. This ruling, the ACLU says, has not had an effect on law enforcement yet.

There is bipartisan legislation pending in the both the House and the Senate that would address this issue, which the ACLU supports. The Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance Act would require warrants be obtained by law enforcement officers to access location information from cell phones or GPS devices. It would order private telecommunications companies get approval from their customers before collecting location data.
Technology is evolving quickly, and often to the detriment of privacy. How much privacy Americans enjoy is a choice that ultimately is ours as a society to make, Crump said.

Alyssa Carducci ([email protected]) writes from Tampa, Florida.

Internet Info

“Cell Phone Location Tracking Public Records Request,” American Civil Liberties Union, April 4, 2012:

“Results of Nationwide Government Cell Phone Tracking Records Request Show Frequent Violations of Americans’ Privacy Rights,” Catherine Crump, American Civil Liberties Union: