DOJ Official Says Requiring a Warrant to Track Cellphones Would ‘Cripple’ Criminal Investigations

Data from cellphones connecting to cell towers is collected by carriers and can currently be provided to law enforcement without a warrant, giving them an idea where the phone was traveling at a given time. (Photo: Shutterstock)

With the Supreme Court deciding earlier this year that it was unconstitutional for law enforcement to place a GPS tracking device on a vehicle without a warrant, location tracking of cellphones without permission has since been called into question.

(Related: Supreme Court rules GPS tracking requires a warrant)

At the State of the Mobile Net conference for the Congressional Internet Caucus Advisory Committee last week, a deputy assistant attorney general for the Justice Department and privacy advocates discussed just how the government and authorities should be able to use mobile phone data. The discussion hoped to address “whether the government needs a warrant to obtain our location from cell phone records and other location devices that we already have in our pockets and in our cars.” Several federal circuit courts have heard cases on this topic already and have been split in their decisions.

(Related: Is warrantless tracking of cell tower data unconstitutional?)

The discussion panel was between Deputy Assistant Attorney General Jason Weinstein and Greg Nojeim with the Center for Democracy & Technology. In the talk, Weinstein advocated for even freer access to mobile phone data for authorities, stating that  requiring a warrant for this data would “cripple” criminal investigations.

PC World reports Nojeim pointing out in the GPS tracking case of United States v. Jones not one of the Supreme Court justices voted in favor of its constitutionality. He said that the whole reason this discussion was currently taking place was because “criminals are not taking over the country.”

Still, PC World points out as of right now many cell phone carriers are more than happy to pony up your information:

[…] selling cell phone surveillance records is a big money-making business for mobile phone companies that have special divisions and manuals to assist law enforcement in nabbing our info. The wireless industry is not transparency-friendly and mobile carrier companies do not want to report the number of times location info is disclosed, contested, or the number of users whose location data was handed over to Johnny Law. In fact, according to the Wireless Association (CTIA), a wireless trade association that includes AT&T, Verizon and Sprint, the proposed reporting requirements “unduly burden wireless providers and their employees, who are working day and night to assist law enforcement to ensure the public’s safety and to save lives.” The EFF bluntly pointed out that the wireless industry is “working day and night” to sell you out in secret.

Earlier this month, the New York Times reported Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), the co-chairman of the Congressional Bipartisan Privacy Caucus, wrote a letter to eight wireless carriers expressing his concern over providing location data to law enforcement and asked that they provide details on this practice to the public:

In his letter, Mr. Markey sought data from the cellphone carriers on the number of requests for help they have received from law enforcement officials in cell tracking and surveillance operations, their policies on whether they require the authorities to secure court warrants, the use of cellphone surveillance in nonemergencies, the fees they charge the police and other information.

Verizon and AT&T are reported as saying they had received the congressman’s letter and would be responding to his request.

PC World goes on to also note the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group also advocating against warrantless tracking of cellphone location, interpreted Weinstein’s words as considering “any privacy protection […] too much privacy protection for cell phone tracking”:

Requiring the police to obtain a search warrant — the traditional method for balancing law enforcement needs with individual privacy — and demanding the wireless industry be transparent about how they deal with law enforcement requests for location information are critical steps in the right direction, towards “fairness” and “justice,” location privacy and transparency.

Here’s the full discussion from the conference if you’re interested in listening to the whole thing, which is about 30 minutes:

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