Cell Phone Surveillance: Tracking Your Every Move

Cell phones long ago ceased to be a luxury and became something we can’t leave home without. But even when your device is idle or turned off, it’s sending information about your location to a cell phone tower every seven seconds. One thing most of us don’t consider is access to that information isn’t limited to your cell phone carrier.

“Police and the government can use that ping to track your whereabouts. There is no expectation of privacy in carrying that cell phone,” said Savannah attorney Bates Lovett of Hunter Maclean. Lovett said carriers can give out this information without your knowledge or permission, and in some cases without a court order.

“They can pull your text messages. They can pull your search history. Those are the types of data and information that they’re being able to pull off now that they don’t always need a warrant for,” said Lovett.

Cell phone companies are now answering more demands for your data than ever before. Nine U.S. carriers responded to questions from U.S. Rep. Ed Markey (D – Massachusetts) earlier this year. According to Markey, the group reported receiving more than 1.3 million requests for information from law enforcement in 2011.

There is no denying that cell phone data is useful and often essential for investigators working to solve crimes. Privacy advocates question whether law enforcement is being allowed too much leeway with what should be protected information.

“They’re going after one person but get information on anyone who was around a cell phone tower at a certain time. Even though they’re investigating one person, they have information on hundreds or thousands of people,” said Trevor Timm of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Experts say the problem is the law hasn’t kept up with technology.

“That’s certainly an issue that legislatures are taking into consideration now is what level of requirement must the government go through to get that type of information,” said Lovett.

A bill called the GPS Act that would require warrants for the data has stalled in the U.S. Senate. U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston said he believes it is time for Congress to act.

“There should be a very high firewall in terms of personal information and what can be done with that information, who gathers that information, who sells, who buys that information,” Kingston told News 3.

Until regulations are in place, remember that what you do with your cell phone is more public than you think.

“Your expectation of privacy and what you and I would think of as private is just not the same thing as what the government thinks of as privacy,” cautioned Lovett.

Many of the cell phone carriers that responded to Markey’s inquiry said they don’t keep track of the law enforcement requests they reject, so the number of requests for data is actually more than estimated.

A study by the American Civil Liberties Union found that some cell phone carriers have manuals for police that explain what data the companies store, how investigators can obtain the data, and how much it would cost.

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