U.S. Senator Al Franken (D – Minn.) has sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) asking the DOJ to provide information on the practices it uses to request location information from carriers. The move follows news that some law enforcement agencies are requesting this information without proper warrants in place.
The Supreme Court recently struck down the practice of tracking individuals using GPS-enabled devices without a warrant, leading Franken to question whether the DOJ is attempting to circumvent this decision by going to cellular carriers directly. Roughly half of all mobile customers in the US own smartphones, most–if not all–of which have embedded GPS chips. Even some feature phones have this technology embedded in the device, making this market ripe for potential tracking activity.
Franken’s letter, which can be read in its entirety at the ACLU website, is seeking answers to what, if any, data the DOJ is requesting from wireless carriers, how their practices may have changed since the Supreme Court decision, and how their practice standards change based on GPS vs. cell-tower location methodologies. Franken’s request of information calls for a response no later than June 11th, giving the DOJ just under a month to provide clarity on their current practices.
Public awareness of the warrantless use of GPS tracking technology by law enforcement agencies was initially reported in a New York Times piece back in March 2012. In follow-up to the Times story, the ACLU requested information from over 200 such agencies under the Freedom of Information Act, and found that many of these agencies do in fact track their populations without a warrant.
I don’t think there’s any question that law enforcement agencies should be allowed to track potential criminals activities, though they need to follow the letter of the law to do so. These agencies should have to be granted a warrant in order to conduct these kinds of services, and it’s good to know that the Chairman of the Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law is attempting to ensure this process is followed. We’ll hopefully learn more of the DOJ’s practices when the office responds to Senator Franken’s inquiry.