Affiliates of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in 31 states have filed 379 information requests, demanding that state and local law enforcement agencies tell how they use location information from mobile phones to track U.S. residents.
Amid a growing debate over whether police or private companies should be able to track mobile-phone users, the public should know how law enforcement agencies are using mobile location data, the ACLU said. The information requests ask local and state law enforcement agencies whether they are obtaining court-approved warrants before tracking mobile-phone users, and how often they are obtaining mobile-phone location data.
The ACLU groups also want to know how much money local and state police agencies are spending on mobile-phone tracking.
"The ability to access cell phone location data is an incredibly powerful tool and its use is shrouded in secrecy," Catherine Crump, staff attorney for the ACLU's Speech, Privacy and Technology Project, said in a statement. "A detailed history of someone's movements is extremely personal and is the kind of information the [U.S.] Constitution protects."
The ACLU has asked for similar information from the U.S. Department of Justice, and is suing the agency to get that information. "We focused on local police because we know a lot more about what federal agents do, and yet people are more likely to be impacted on a day-to-day basis by the decisions of their local departments," Crump said in an e-mail.
ACLU groups in California, Florida, Virginia, Illinois and Massachusetts were among those filing information requests. The ACLU will post the information it receives on a website dedicated to location tracking.
In June, Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, and Representative Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican, introduced the Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance Act, a bill 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 require customer consent for mobile carriers to collect location data.
ACLU has voiced support for that bill.
The DOJ contends that it does not need court-ordered warrants to obtain mobile location data. DOJ officials have questioned whether new rules are needed.
Current rules, giving law enforcement quick access to location data, can help law enforcement agencies fight crime and save lives, DOJ officials have said.
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.