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Cellphone Tracking Powers on Request

Gidari, who also represents CTIA, said he has never seen such a request that was based on probable cause.

Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd said field attorneys should follow the department's policy. "We strongly recommend that prosecutors in the field obtain a warrant based on probable cause" to get location data "in a private area not accessible to the public," he said. "When we become aware of situations where this has not occurred, we contact the field office and discuss the matter."

The phone data can home in on a target to within about 30 feet, experts said.

Federal agents used exact real-time data in October 2006 to track a serial killer in Florida who was linked to at least six murders in four states, including that of a University of Virginia graduate student, whose body was found along the Blue Ridge Parkway. The killer died in a police shooting in Florida as he was attempting to flee.

"Law enforcement has absolutely no interest in tracking the locations of law-abiding citizens. None whatsoever," Boyd said. "What we're doing is going through the courts to lawfully obtain data that will help us locate criminal targets, sometimes in cases where lives are literally hanging in the balance, such as a child abduction or serial murderer on the loose."

In many cases, orders are being issued for cell-tower site data, which are less precise than the data derived from E911 signals. While the E911 technology could possibly tell officers what building a suspect was in, cell-tower site data give an area that could range from about three to 300 square miles.

Since 2005, federal magistrate judges in at least 17 cases have denied federal requests for the less-precise cellphone tracking data absent a demonstration of probable cause that a crime is being committed. Some went out of their way to issue published opinions in these otherwise sealed cases.

"Permitting surreptitious conversion of a cellphone into a tracking device without probable cause raises serious Fourth Amendment concerns especially when the phone is in a house or other place where privacy is reasonably expected," said Judge Stephen William Smith of the Southern District of Texas, whose 2005 opinion on the matter was among the first published.

But judges in a majority of districts have ruled otherwise on this issue, Boyd said. Shortly after Smith issued his decision, a magistrate judge in the same district approved a federal request for cell-tower data without requiring probable cause. And in December 2005, Magistrate Judge Gabriel W. Gorenstein of the Southern District of New York, approving a request for cell-site data, wrote that because the government did not install the "tracking device" and the user chose to carry the phone and permit transmission of its information to a carrier, no warrant was needed.

These judges are issuing orders based on the lower standard, requiring a showing of "specific and articulable facts" showing reasonable grounds to believe the data will be "relevant and material" to a criminal investigation.

Boyd said the government believes this standard is sufficient for cell-site data. "This type of location information, which even in the best case only narrows a suspect's location to an area of several city blocks, is routinely generated, used and retained by wireless carriers in the normal course of business," he said.

The trend's secrecy is troubling, privacy advocates said. No government body tracks the number of cellphone location orders sought or obtained. Congressional oversight in this area is lacking, they said. And precise location data will be easier to get if the Federal Communication Commission adopts a Justice Department proposal to make the most detailed GPS data available automatically.

Often, Gidari said, federal agents tell a carrier they need real-time tracking data in an emergency but fail to follow up with the required court approval. Justice Department officials said to the best of their knowledge, agents are obtaining court approval unless the carriersprovide the data voluntarily.

To guard against abuse, Congress should require comprehensive reporting to the court and to Congress about how and how often the emergency authority is used, said John Morris, senior counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology.

Staff researcher Richard Drezen contributed to this report.


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