Federal officials are routinely asking courts to order cellphone companies to furnish real-time tracking data so they can pinpoint the whereabouts of drug traffickers, fugitives, and other criminal suspects, reports the Washington Post. In some cases, judges grant 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. Privacy advocates fear such a practice may expose average Americans to a new level of government scrutiny of their daily lives.
Such requests run counter to the Justice Department’s recommendation that prosecutors seek warrants based on probable cause to obtain precise location data in private areas. The issue is taking on greater relevance as wireless carriers offering services that allow cellphone users to know with the touch of a button where their friends or families are. “Most people don’t realize it, but they’re carrying a tracking device in their pocket,” said Kevin Bankston of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “Cellphones can reveal very precise information about your location, and yet legal protections are very much up in the air.” This month, a federal judge in Texas denied a request by a Drug Enforcement Administration agent for data that would identify a drug trafficker’s phone location by using the carrier’s E911 tracking capability. Magistrate Brian Owsley in Corpus Christi said the agent’s affidavit failed to focus on “specifics necessary to establish probable cause, such as relevant dates, names and places.”