ACLU Seeks Government Records on Use of Cell Phones as Tracking Devices

By: Nicole A. Ozer

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request yesterday with the Department of Justice (DOJ) to learn the details of the government's use of cell phones as tracking devices. The request follows on the heels of revelations that federal officials are using Americans' cell phones to pinpoint their location, sometimes without any court oversight.

On November 23, the Washington Post reported that federal officials regularly obtain cell phone location data from phone companies so the government can track individuals' movements. According to the Post, federal officials sometimes do so without any court supervision, and sometimes act in violation of a DOJ recommendation that federal officials establish probable cause before tracking the movements of individuals in private spaces.

"Giving the government the power to track and store a person's whereabouts at any given moment without probable cause is a serious intrusion on our personal privacy," said Catherine Crump, staff attorney for the ACLU. "Carrying around a cell phone should not make a person susceptible to that kind of surveillance."

It is unknown when the government began requesting orders for cell phone location data without first establishing probable cause or how many of the requested orders have been issued. The ACLU FOIA request aims to discover the extent of this practice in order to determine the scope of the privacy threat. The DOJ maintains that probable cause is not always necessary before acquiring individual cell phone locations.

"We have a right to know if, and for how long, the government has been using cell phones to track people in this invasive manner," said Crump. "Advancing technology must go hand in hand with advancing safeguards for our privacy."

The ACLU today filed the FOIA request with the Executive Office for United States Attorneys (EOUSA) and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), both part of DOJ. The request for information includes documents, memos and guides regarding the policies and procedures for tracking individuals through the use of cell phones, as well as information about the number of times the government has applied for cell phone location information without establishing probable cause and how many times it has been granted.

The ACLU's FOIA request to the EOUSA can be found online.

The ACLU's FOIA request to the DEA can be found online.

More information about the ACLU's work to protect against unchecked government surveillance is available here.