PhotoCivil libertarians are up in arms over revelations that police departments around the country routinely track individuals using cell phones without getting a warrant.

The law enforcement officials say they do it as a matter of public safety, as in the case when someone is missing. The cell phone companies, meanwhile, are making a tidy profit providing the data

Stephen B. Wicker, Cornell University professor of electrical and computer engineering, says it it just points up what he calls our “obsolete” federal data privacy laws. He conducts research on wireless information networks, and focuses on networking technology, law, sociology, and how regulation can affect privacy and speech rights. He is also the author of “Cellular Convergence and the Death of Privacy,” a book to be published by Oxford University Press at the end of 2012.

Tracking your location

“Cellular telephony is a surveillance technology – and despite the hundreds of millions of Americans who use cell phones every day, we still have out-of-date and obsolete federal data privacy laws,” Wicker said.

When a cellular handset is on, it periodically transmits a registration message that allows the service provider to track the location of the user. While useful for routing incoming calls to the handset, the location data has proven irresistible to law enforcement as a means for tracking individuals.

“Last August, the American Civil Liberties Union submitted requests under the Freedom of Information Act to over 380 state and local law enforcement agencies regarding their tracking of cell phone users,” Wicker said. “Over 200 agencies responded, and the results were alarming both in the extent of the surveillance and the variability in supervision by the judicial system.”

Cashing in

A Justice Department document obtained by the ACLU shows that service providers retain location data for at least a year, and in some cases, appear to do so indefinitely. Wicker says cell phone companies are cashing in, treating consumers' data as a commodity.

“Some service providers are charging fees in return for providing their subscribers’ personal information without telling the subscribers about the transactions,” Wicker said. “All consumers should be annoyed – and alarmed.”

It turns out that only a small minority of the police department requested a warrant before requesting the data. In recent court cases, Wicker says federal courts have been divided over the actual requirements, with some requiring a warrant and others not.

“We must reform our data privacy laws,” Wicker said.


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