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Your Cell Phone Is a Tracking Device

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Thursday, 11 February 2010 18:30
File photo, a cell phone tower surrounded by razor-wire fencing, 01/03/09. (photo: arstechnica.com)

File photo, a cell phone tower surrounded by razor-wire fencing, 01/03/09. (photo: arstechnica.com)


Can the FBI Secretly Track Your Cell Phone?

he 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.

"Most people don't understand they are carrying a tracking device in their pockets," says Kevin Bankston, a lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy group that has been trying to monitor the Justice Department's practice.

Much about the practice - including how many "tracking" records have been collected by the government - remains shrouded in secrecy. But in one court case in which the use of such records arose, a Philadelphia FBI agent named William Shute testified that he had obtained such records 150 times in recent years in order to track the location of federal fugitives.

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.")

This week, the constitutionality of the Justice Department's method of acquiring such records will be argued in federal court for the first time.

A panel of three federal judges in Philadelphia on Friday is due to hear oral arguments in a landmark case in which Bankston's group and the ACLU are contending that the Justice Department's cell-phone tracking practice raises profound "privacy" issues under the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. The groups contend the Justice Department should be required to first obtain the equivalent of search warrants from federal judges in which they would have to establish "probable cause" that the records will actually yield evidence of a federal crime.

Currently, the records are obtained under what are known as "2703(d)" orders - a reference to an obscure provision of a federal law known as the Stored Communications Act - in which prosecutors only need to assert that there are "reasonable grounds" to believe the records are "relevant" to an ongoing federal criminal investigation, a much lower standard that that needed for a search warrant.

The case arose because a federal magistrate in a drug case in Philadelphia refused to grant an order to turn over cell-phone tracking records of one subject, making the magistrate (and a handful of other magistrates and federal judges who have issued similar rulings in recent years) something of a hero to privacy advocates.

But the Justice Department is appealing, contending in a brief that the concerns of its privacy critics are "outlandish" and overblown. 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. The idea that the government's acquisition of records might lead to "dragnet surveillance" - as the critics claim - is an "absurdity," states one of the Justice Department's briefs in the case, which is co-filed by Mark Eckenwiler, the associate director of the DOJ's Office of Enforcement Operations.

Federal prosecutors were even more blunt in an earlier cell-phone tracking dispute, although in ways that might hardly be reassuring to most cell-phone users.

"One who does not wish to disclose his movements to the government need not use a cellular telephone," the prosecutors wrote.


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+4 # Guest 2010-02-12 04:50
Since the Justice Department calls claims that this kind of spying might lead to dragnet surveillance an "absurdity," it either means that they're already using the technique for dragnet surveillance (and find the idea that they "might" do it an absurdity) or they are incapable of recognizing an absurdity (such as the statement, "One who does not wish to disclose his movements to the government need not use a cellular telephone.").
 
 
-9 # Guest 2010-02-12 05:56
This will come in handy when the government starts rounding up liberals, homosexuals and other "social deviants."
 
 
-3 # Guest 2010-02-12 09:35
The wrong person get elected in 2008.
 
 
+6 # Guest 2010-02-12 10:04
This practice has been going on since well before 2008. Whether or not you support the person elected in 2008 is irrelevant to this discussion.
 
 
0 # NEO MAX 2011-03-06 21:24
Quoting Guest:
This practice has been going on since well before 2008. Whether or not you support the person elected in 2008 is irrelevant to this discussion.


Yeah, the mobile operator can always be able to track us.

See this post http://cellphonetrackers.org/mobile-phone-gsm-tracking-using-base-stations.html
 
 
-2 # Guest 2010-02-12 10:23
Quoting charsjcca:
The wrong person get elected in 2008.


No, actually the wrong person got elected in 2000 and 2004.
 
 
0 # Guest 2010-02-12 11:42
The wrong person stole the election in 2002 and 2004.
 
 
+5 # Guest 2010-02-12 10:09
charsjcca - This practice has been going on since well before the 2008 election. Whether or nor you support the person elected in 2008 is irrelevant to this discussion.
 
 
+2 # Guest 2010-02-12 12:19
Quoting Dave:
charsjcca - This practice has been going on since well before the 2008 election. Whether or nor you support the person elected in 2008 is irrelevant to this discussion.
Not necessarily Dave. The person elected in 2008 is apparently continuing this policy, among many others i.e. black sites, that the former administration set up. The person elected in 2008 is extremely relevant.
 
 
+7 # Guest 2010-02-12 11:21
Other little-known facts:
(1) Whether a cell phone appears to be "on" or "off" is entirely a matter of its programming.
(2) Its programming is entirely under the control of the telecoms.
(3) The telecoms are entirely under the control of the government. (Witness their immunity to prosecution for helping our government spy on us.)
(4) Your cell phone is therefore a bug. The government can hear everything that's going on in the vicinity of your cell phone, all the time, whether or not you have turned it off and whether or not it appears to be off.
(5) To have a private conversation, first remove the battery from your cell phone, and from everyone else's cell phone. Then, assuming there are no other bugs around, and assuming your phone does not have a secret extra battery, you can talk privately.
 
 
+3 # Guest 2010-02-12 11:47
Rouinely pull the battery when not using it. Sounds weird, gets easy as a routine.
It defeats the tracking aspect and defeats stealth audio surleillence.Yo u can modify your phone to switched cut power, open-circuit cut power. Given all this nonsense, this should be a feature in the near future. But you can be traced and tracked and recorded while it's on you, near you, etc.
 
 
+3 # Opinionated 2010-02-12 12:28
All kinds of governmental agencies could use this tracking system to empty our pockets and balance their deficits.

(1) If you have a cell phone and pass a relay station it can document that your cell phone was there at a particular time.
(2) 1 hour later you pass another relay station 100 miles away from the first cell phone relay station.
(3) Your phone records could now be used to mail you a speeding ticket charging you with driving 100 Miles Per Hour. This kind of ticketing is already being done with Camera's on street corners.

Big Brother is already here and we know nothing about how our privacy is being exploited.

Support the ACLU
 
 
0 # Guest 2010-02-20 22:40
First, do away with the ACLU.
Second, do away with those who support the ACLU.
 
 
+5 # Guest 2010-02-12 13:21
so I could plant my cell phone somewhere and then commit a crime in another location... I would have an alibi?
 
 
-1 # Guest 2010-02-13 15:55
And with all this super-technolog y about cell phones, you suppose that they cannot trace you online as well? Every website you visit, every email you send and recieve is recorded by the government for future use. So, by warning us about cell phones, the real danger is left out, making us think that we are "safe" because we unplugged the battery from the phone.
 
 
+1 # Guest 2010-02-14 09:24
Quoting mike:
This will come in handy when the government starts rounding up liberals, homosexuals and other "social deviants."


OR such dangerous people like Christians clinging to their Bibles, or terrorists like former members of the US Military, or attendees to Tea Parties, or someone who might go to a Town Hall meeting and ask a probing question of a government office holder of either party that might prove embarrassing.
 
 
0 # Guest 2010-09-04 10:23
"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." That's a lie - they're data records, not business records. Business records document and record business activity and related transactions. A cycle of pings is NOT a series of financial transactions.
 

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