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Texas City to Buy $180K Cellphone Tracker to Help 'Combat Criminal Activity

"It's important to have probable cause before you track..."

The city council of Fort Worth, Texas, recently approved the purchase of a $180,000 portable system that would give law enforcement the ability to track cellphones in an effort to better "combat criminal activity," according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

This decision comes at a time when courts across the country, including the Supreme Court, are hearing cases involving the legality of warrantless tracking of subjects that are under criminal investigation. In fact, just last month the Supreme Court ruled that GPS tracking of a vehicle requires a warrant. Although it was not discussed by the high court at the time, Greg Nojeim, director of the Center for Democracy and Technology’s project on freedom, security and technology told The Blaze that requiring a warrant for GPS tracking could open the door for needing one for cellphone tracking as well.

Cellphone tracking can involve estimating a person's whereabouts based on cellphone tower locations while they are making live calls. Vice President of Public Policy Jim Dempsey for the Center for Democracy and Technology has explained to the Blaze before that cell tower information can also be obtained from the service provider without a warrant. He said that the cell company collects this information as much as every seven seconds from the cell tower you're connecting to, giving a fairly accurate idea of your whereabouts and movements. There is also technology, called a Stingray, which can locate phones that are just turned on -- whether or not they are making a call.

(Related: Should law enforcement's Stingray system track you without a search warrant?)

The Star-Telegram reports that the police department declined to comment on the type of technology it would be purchasing but did note it is a KingFish system by the Harris Corp. In 2010, Twin Cities IndyMedia reported a story where local government was looking to acquire a KingFish system as well. This is what it had to say about the technology:

We heard [Hennepin County Sheriff Rich] Stanek said the Feds told him he can't talk about KingFish, even though the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension already has one. [...] While searching KingFish system by Harris Wireless Products Group or Harris Corporation turns up very little on the Internet, a US Army Intelligence command posted notice of "sole source" contracting of the KingFish Harris system. It must really be a field-clearing, top of the line cell phone tracking system; according to the contract spec it works on CDMA and 3G systems [...]

WFAA.com reports that sales documents show the KingFish device appears to be the kind that can track cellphones even when they're not being used. WFAA reports that the American Civil Liberties Union is tracking court cases involving KingFish devices and others by Harris:

The group is monitoring court cases for protection of privacy laws and prevention of illegal search and seizure.

The ACLU wants laws at the local level that force police to obtain a search warrant before tracking cell phones, saying it is common for police to buy new technology without public discussion.

"You shouldn't be using cell phone tracking technology to establish probable cause," said Catherine Crump, an ACLU technology attorney. "It's important to have probable cause before you track, and that's what I think one of the primary concerns with this technology is."

Watch the WFAA report:

Fort Worth police are assuring the media that they intend to protect the Constitutional rights of citizens "by securing search warrants and court orders based on probable cause," police Maj. Paul Henderson said in an e-mailed statement to the Star-Telegram. But citizen's rights advocacy groups are still concerned:

It's the "developing probable cause" part of the city's memo that Lisa Graybill, the Texas legal director of the American Civil Liberty Union Texas, questioned Wednesday.

"You want the Police Department to develop probable cause to show that there has been a crime committed or that there is the likelihood that a crime will be committed before they use this technology," Graybill said.

WFAA reports that defense lawyer Jerry Loftin also took interest in this phrasing:

He said he will appeal any ruling the first time he sees tracking evidence from a KingFish without a warrant.

"The Constitution says what? You are secure in your home from an 'unreasonable search and seizure,'" Loftin said. "This is an unreasonable search and seizure where someone can follow you around and track you with a device."

Some are also upset that purchase of the device was not debated. The Star-Telegraph reports that it was on the council's "consent agenda" and was approved without discussion.

Still, Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price said in an email statement to WFAA that she trusted the police department would follow the appropriate laws when using the device.

[H/T J.R. Colby Radio]

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