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Thursday, August 04, 2011

ACLU-NM Seeks Details on APD Phone Tracking as Part of Massive Nationwide Information Request

In a massive coordinated information-seeking campaign, ACLU-NM joined 32 other American Civil Liberties Union affiliates across the nation yesterday and sent requests to 366 local law enforcement agencies in 30 states demanding to know when, why and how they are using cell phone location data to track Americans. According to the ACLU, the campaign is one of the largest coordinated information act requests in American history. ACLU says that the requests, being filed under the states' freedom of information laws, are an effort to strip away the secrecy that has surrounded law enforcement use of cell phone tracking capabilities.

“The ability to access cell phone location data is an incredibly powerful tool and its use is shrouded in secrecy. The public has a right to know how and under what circumstances their location information is being accessed by the government,” said Catherine Crump, staff attorney for the ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project. “A detailed history of someone's movements is extremely personal and is the kind of information the Constitution protects.”

The Albuquerque Police Department has a history of conducting surveillance on local activists. An ACLU lawsuit that challenged the APD’s handling of a March 2003 anti-war protest revealed that APD officers had spied on the organizers of the event, even covertly attending their organizing meetings. In the 1980s, the ACLU sued the Department for gathering intelligence on political activists and civil rights lawyers.

“Given the department’s history, there’s good reason to be concerned that APD might be using cell phone tracking techniques without first obtaining a probable cause warrant,” said Peter Simonson, ACLU-NM Executive Director. 

APD is being asked (see letter) for information including:

  • whether APD law enforcement agents demonstrate probable cause and obtain a warrant to access cell phone location data; 
  • statistics on how frequently APD is obtaining cell phone location data; 
  • how much money APD is spending tracking cell phones and 
  • other policies and procedures used for acquiring location data. 

The use of cell phone location data has been widespread for years, although it has become increasingly controversial recently. Just last week, the general counsel of the National Security Agency suggested to members of Congress that the NSA might have the authority to collect the location information of American citizens inside the U.S. Also, this spring, researchers revealed that iPhones were collecting and storing location information in unknown files on the phone. Police in Michigan sought information about every cell phone near the site of a planned labor protest.

The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to decide whether police need a warrant to place a GPS tracking device on a person's vehicle. While that case does not involve cell phones, it could influence the rules police have to follow for cell phone tracking.

Congress is considering the Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance Act, a bill supported by the ACLU that would require police to get a warrant to obtain personal location information. The bill would protect both historical and real-time location data, and would also require customers' consent for telecommunications companies to collect location data.

Yesterday’s requests are part of the ACLU’s Demand Your Rights Campaign, the organization’s campaign to make sure that as technology advances, privacy rights are not left behind. 

Why Should We Care About This Issue?
Surreptitious surveillance should matter to all of us. Reporters could be tracked without their knowledge as they meet with their confidential sources. Political activists, including individuals associated with new political parties, anti-abortion protestors, anti-war activists, etc., could be under surveillance  and not know it. One’s location might expose whether or not you are a weekly church goer, a heavy drinker, a regular at the gym, an unfaithful spouse, an outpatient receiving medical treatment, if you frequent adult establishments, if you take personal time during the work day, etc.

It's important to raise awareness of the ways in which new technologies are giving law enforcement agents unprecedented surveillance powers. By filing public records requests across the country in a coordinated manner, the ACLU aims to create momentum for solutions by drawing attention to local problems and illuminating our current surveillance society. There's a lot of work to be done, and technology advances every day.

August 4, 2011 at 06:14 AM in City of Albuquerque, Civil Liberties, Law Enforcement | Permalink