And you thought the whole ‘they can eavesdrop on you even when your phone is off’ thing was all you had to worry about with cell phones.

The Justice Department is poised this week to publicly defend a little known law enforcement practice that critics say may be the “sleeper” privacy issue of the 21st century: the collection of cell phone “tracking” records that identify the physical locations where the phones have been.

It may come as a surprise to most of the owners of the country’s 277 million cell phones but their cell phone company retains records of where their device has been at all times–either because the phones have tiny GPS devices embedded inside or because each phone call is routed through towers that can be used to pinpoint the phones’ location to within areas as small as a few hundred feet.

Such location “logs” never show up on your monthly cell phone bill. But federal court records filed over the past year indicate that federal prosecutors and the FBI have increasingly been obtaining such records in the course of criminal investigations–without any notice to the cell phone customer or any showing of “probable cause” that tracking the physical location of the phone will turn up evidence of an actual crime.
It also briefly became an issue in last year’s New Jersey gubernatorial race when the ACLU obtained records showing that, as U.S. attorney, Republican candidate (and now governor) Chris Christie had acquired such records 79 times without judicial warrants. (Christie called criticism of the practice “overblown hyperbole”.)
The thrust of the department’s argument: cell phone tracking records are “routine business records” that contain “non content” data and are therefore “unprotected” under the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution.

  1. RTaylor says:

    Buy a phone with calling cards and toss it every month. Works for criminals.

  2. USA says:

    Mind your own business. The police state is busy paying junkies welfare cash, thus creating more junkies. The child molester crowd can’t find work, so they get police state rent subsidies and free food. Can’t let them starve! The police are busy as the rat race speeds up.

  3. Olo Baggins of Bywater says:

    Eric…if cops wanted to do the speeding ticket thing all they need to do is grab data from speedpass. And how long before a cop figures out all he’s got to do is grab your GPS and look at the max speed?

    IMO this data should require a warrant. With that in place it’s not much of an issue to me.

  4. SparkyOne says:

    Between the cell company, my bank and the local food store, they now know enough about my life that I expect them to fucking run it instead of me. They can just send me a daily to do list to follow and I’ll be a good American then.

    I do not need any rights, my government watches over my well being.

  5. chris says:

    Why does the phone company store this information after the billing period, or at all?

    #2 This is nothing like showing a wanted picture. The real use is to take two, or more, people and say when and where they meet.

    Similar to call records, not the content, it doesn’t require a warrant.

    I would assume a wide use and direct access by government to this information. If cross referenced to social networking sites, call records, credit card bills, CCTV and ez-pass a startlingly detailed record of people’s lives is available.

    Major offenders and terrorists, almost by definition, avoid these collections. So the real focus of the systems is on everybody else…

  6. soundwash says:

    “Now isn’t that Special..”

    -translation: we’ve been doing this for years, -and have patriot act v11.7 ready to fully legalize this activity right down to the local level the next time someone makes
    a crank call to the white house.

    remember kiddies, military/black op
    technology is 50 to 100yrs more advanced than what us “civilians” have access to.


  7. Robart says:

    Why was it that when the previous administration was in office all these type of headlines were something along the lines of “Bush (or Cheney) Wants to Take Away ALL Your Rights!”? Now it is the FBI, CIA, the Justice Dept. or some other rogue agency trampling our right. When did the buck stop going to the oval office?

  8. Tito says:


    It would appear the Oval Office can’t seem to handle those types of decisions.

  9. Mike in Fort Worth says:

    There are really two situations to examine here: Asking for these records as part of a long term investigation, i.e. a bank robbery in which you learn the cell phone number of possible suspect several days after the robbery and an emergency situation in which you need to track a phone immediately, i.e. a kidnapping.

    I have obtained these records in both situations. I would have no problem obtaining a search warrant for the phone tower hits in a long term investigation, I only use the subpoena because it’s not currently required. Regarding exigent circumstances like an active kidnapping, law enforcement really needs this tool because taking the time to write up an affidavit for a search warrant and then finding a judge to sign it would take too much time, thereby endangering the victim.

    Eric, this type of court order could not be used to issue a speeding ticket (nor could your data from your in car GPS) because the state would have to prove it was you that speeding. We can’t issue a speeding ticket to a car or a phone which is what you are suggesting. I know that we issue red light camera tickets to a car (which I disagree with on principle) but those citations are civil in nature and are the result of specific legislation authorizing them.

  10. Cap'nKangaroo says:

    How easy would it be to cross reference all congressional cell phone location data versus call girls (or guys) cell phone location data?

    Do several power-point presentations to the congressional staff members on how easy this can be accomplished and a bill to require probable cause will be introduced and fast-tracked. Problem solved.

  11. bahramks says:

    Well is in’t that nice? they are using exactly the same thing in my country -Iran- as incriminating evidence for the arrested protesters.

  12. Nobody says:

    Major offenders and terrorists aren’t the problem – it’s regular people voting that are the threat to politicians.

    The important thing is to keep them in their place. You don’t have to track their phone – just let people know that if they happen to be in a certain city on the same day as an anti-war protest it will be recorded by the government.

    It’s like photographing demonstrators at political rallies – the point is to scare people into behaving ‘correctly’

  13. f. garza says:

    Why don’t they focus on things that are freaking important my god I swear the FBI will ask the govt for more money to fund this project.

  14. Thinker says:

    I wonder how this could pass muster legally. I suppose it would amount to whether it was considered ‘tracking’ or akin to CC camera surveillance.

    I hope somebody challenges this. Its times like these that the ACLU is actually useful.

  15. Steve S says:

    Why is this news? Hasn’t everyone seen an episode of CSI where the first thing they do is pull up someone’s cell phone records and display where they were at certain key times during a crime. That and the amazing infinite clarity zoom they can do on extremely poor quality surveillance camera video. Oh and the 10 minute results for DNA and toxicity tests.
    With all of these modern tools (and the apparently infinite budget that goes along with having and using them), it is really amazing that any crime can go unsolved.

  16. Grim says:

    Hey Baggins #4, I’ve had my GPS read max speeds of over 1000kmh before, while driving my car, coincidentally, a jet fighter crashed at the same time nearby.

  17. deowll says:

    Not if its turned off.

  18. Steve S says:

    PHILADELPHIA, Feb 12 (Reuters) – The U.S. government argued on Friday that it should be allowed access to people’s cell-phone records to help track suspected criminals.

  19. deowll says:

    #19 That’s odd. I think the public ought to have access to all the email and phone messages of Congress Critters for the same reason.


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