The American Civil Liberties Union has sued the Tucson Police Department over the city’s use of cellphone tracking devices. According to the TPD, the equipment is used to track specific suspects though their cell phone usage. While that sounds fairly innocuous, there are some problems with the government position:
The devices in question mimic a cell phone tower. As such, they capture data from anyone using a cellphone in the area, whether or not the person is innocent, and even if the person has nothing to do with a criminal investigation. The device can “see” all the cellphones in the area, and captures text messages, call history, emails, and location data.
The attorneys for the city say the claims in the lawsuit are “without any factual support,” but there appear to be a few undisputed facts on the side of the ACLU. The first is that the devices purchased by the city do in fact mimic cell phone towers. In addition,
- On at least five occasions, the TPD has used the tracking devices, and in none of those cases did it even seek to obtain a search warrant.
- Every time a device is used, it captures information from everyone with a cell phone in the area.
One of the most interesting points of the lawsuit is that it seeks to obtain information on the TPD’s use of the devices, because, the plaintiff argues, there is no oversight on their use. Indeed, the ACLU says the city has actually been trying to conceal its use of the devices. This becomes important not only because unfettered warrantless searches are in most cases illegal, but because the information gathered touches the rights of every citizen who owns and uses a cellphone.
So what is the argument against disclosure? The city says it would be “burdensome” to do so, and that disclosure would disclose investigative techniques. We suppose one answer to that argument is that if the technique infringes upon the rights of innocent citizens, those rights should prevail.
No date for argument in the case has been set. And you can definitely expect to hear more on this issue down the road.
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