WHILE YOU WERE SLEEPING - Justice Dept. Defends Tracking Your Cell Phone

(02/19/2010)

YOUR CELL PHONE CAN BE "PINGED"

COMMENT By Bob Weaver/News Media Sources

This is not a conspiracy theory.

The FBI and other police agencies don't need to obtain a search warrant to learn the locations of Americans' cell phones, the U.S. Department of Justice told a federal appeals court in Philadelphia last week.

A Justice Department attorney told the Third Circuit Court of Appeals that there is no constitutional problem with obtaining records from cellular providers that can reveal the approximate locations of handheld and mobile devices.

Mark Eckenwiler, a senior attorney in the criminal division of the Justice Department said, "The government is not required to use a warrant when it uses a tracking device."

Privacy advocates fear such a practice may expose average Americans to a new level of government scrutiny of their daily lives, portrayed in Orwell's "1984" - big brother is watching you.

The US government has a significant history of creating millions of files about US citizens that are "suspicious," and under FBI czar J. Edgar Hoover, it is well-documented he created an "enemies list" and other files on people that presented differing political views, or in some cases he was just curious about their sex lives.

Federal officials are routinely asking courts to order cell-phone companies to furnish real-time tracking data so they can pinpoint the whereabouts of drug traffickers, fugitives and other criminal suspects.

Judges have granted the requests without requiring the government to demonstrate that there is probable cause to believe that a crime is taking place or that the inquiry will yield evidence of a crime.

There is greater relevance as wireless carriers are racing to offer sleek services that allow cell-phone users to know with the touch of a button the location of friends or family members.

With Verizon's Chaperone service, parents can set up a "geofence" around, say, a few city blocks and receive an automatic text message if their child, holding the cell-phone, travels outside that area.

"Most people don't realize it, but they're carrying a tracking device in their pocket," said Kevin Bankston of the privacy advocacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation.

"Cell-phones can reveal very precise information about your location, and yet legal protections are very much up in the air," he said.

"Law enforcement routinely now requests carriers to continuously 'ping' wireless devices of suspects to locate them when a call is not being made," he continued.

Law enforcement can triangulate the precise location of a device and [seek] the location of all associates communicating with a target," wrote Christopher Guttman-McCabe, vice president of regulatory affairs for CTIA, the Wireless Association.

Since the Patriot Act was passed to combat terrorism, many civil libertarians maintain that the gap was dropped to routinely peek into the lives of ordinary citizens, including warrantless eavesdropping, searching personal computer files, and defining what citizens are reading, studying, and communicating.

The Washington Post wrote, "Just a few years ago, tracking phones was the stuff of thrillers like "Enemy of the State" or "Live Free or Die Hard."

"When the government acquires historical cell location information, it effectively commandeers our cell phones and turns them into electronic trackers that report, without our knowledge or consent, where we have been and how long we have spent there," said Susan Freiwald, a law professor at the University of San Francisco.

Is big brother watching you?, as Orwell suggested.

It could be happening, while you were sleeping.


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