The U.S. Justice Department’s Use of Cell Phone Tracking

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An appeals court ruled in a privacy-rights case, that the U.S. Justice Department’s use of cell-phone tracking in prosecutions that do not end in a conviction, according to Bloomberg News, need not be disclosed to a civil rights group attacking the practice.

The American Civil Liberties Union sued under the Freedom of Information Act for records that included case names and docket numbers of prosecutions in which the government obtained tracking data without having a warrant. The ACLU and other groups have argued that such data collection violates privacy rights, while government officials have said that the data helps to combat terrorism.


ACLU Legal Director Arthur Spitzer said in a telephone interview, that “We want to find out how the government is using cellphones as tracking devices.” Spitzer said according to Bloomberg News that, “The government was doing this without getting a warrant.”

Many law enforcement agencies track cell phones quite frequently. For example, based on invoices from cell phone companies, it appears that Raleigh, N.C. tracks hundreds of cell phones a year. According to the ACLU, the practice is so common that cell phone companies have manuals for police explaining what data the companies store, how much they charge police to access that data, and what officers need to do to get it.

The U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington said in a 2-1 ruling that according to Bloomberg News, “The government, having brought the full force of its prosecutorial power to bear against individuals it ultimately failed to prove actually committed crimes, has a special responsibility — a responsibility it is fulfilling here — to protect such individuals from further public scrutiny.” Circuit Judge Janice Rogers Brown has said that technological advances make true privacy virtually impossible. The U.S. Court of Appeals also said that disclosure would constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy,” according to Bloomberg News.

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