N.C. Police Scrutiny of Mobile Data Raises Concerns

April 3, 2012
Civil liberties advocates are worried that advances in mobile phone technology have opened a door for police in North Carolina to snoop on people without the standard legal protections.

April 03--Civil liberties advocates are worried that advances in mobile phone technology have opened a door for police in North Carolina to snoop on people without the standard legal protections.

Law enforcement officers are increasingly mining the wealth of data from phone towers to piece together a user's travels and contacts -- a virtual diary that investigators can read without the subject's consent or awareness. That information is retained by phone companies for months and years in some cases.

The American Civil Liberties Union recently conducted a national study of law enforcement procedures for obtaining detailed phone records.

The organization's findings, both nationally and within North Carolina, raise questions about whether laws designed to protect privacy are keeping up with the dizzying pace of technological advances.

It also raises questions about the willingness of phone companies to help law enforcement agencies, and at what price. Wireless carriers, many which have special teams that deal with law enforcement, charge from several hundred to several thousand dollars to do a sweeping investigation to dredge up the details of a suspect's records.

While many departments require subpoenas or other court orders to track cellphones in non-emergencies, some agencies play it a little looser and faster when time pressures exist.

In North Carolina, the study found, there is no uniform statewide procedure to guide investigators.

"It's sort of wild," said Allie Bohm, an ACLU advocacy and political strategist from the national office. "You can be in one county and they're doing it one way and be in another county and they're doing it different. It's a total patchwork."

Some track without warrant

More than 40 of the law enforcement departments that responded to the ACLU survey were from North Carolina. Among them were the counties of Alamance, Buncombe, Guilford, and New Hanover, and the cities of Asheville, Burlington, Chapel Hill, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Fayetteville, Greenville, High Point, Raleigh, and Wilmington.

Some responded that they track cellphones without a warrant, according to the ACLU of North Carolina, which touts itself as an organization "dedicated to preserving and expanding the guarantees of individual liberty found in the United States Constitution, the North Carolina Constitution, and related federal and state civil rights laws."

In Wilson County, the organization reported, law enforcement officers obtain cellphone tracking data where it is "relevant and material" to an ongoing investigation -- a standard much lower than probable cause.

Greensboro was one of 10 law enforcement agencies across the country reporting that they do not track cellphones. But Greensboro reported participating in joint investigations with other law enforcement agencies that did.

In Chatham County, according to the study, law enforcement officers use real-time GPS tracking of cellphones using a "reasonable suspicion" standard.

Apex, according to the study, obtains historical cell site information using a "relevance and materiality standard."

Some of the North Carolina law enforcement agencies not only seek information about a suspect's phone records, Bohm said, they also seek information about anyone else whose phones put them near or around the same towers.

"These findings raise tremendous privacy concerns for individuals all across North Carolina," Katy Parker, Legal Director of the ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation, said in a prepared statement.

"In order to preserve Americans' constitutional right to privacy, the government should have to obtain a warrant before tracking people's cellphones. While the inconsistency of legal standards among different jurisdictions in North Carolina is disturbing, the fact that some agencies do obtain warrants when they have probable cause to track a cellphone shows that such a practice is both reasonable and workable."

George H. Erwin Jr., executive director of the North Carolina Association of Chiefs of Police, said historically obtaining warrants for such information had been standard practice. But he said the issue was not one the association talked about much. Nor was he aware of the ACLU survey. Erwin advocated for a standard procedure.

"It would be much easier on law enforcement if there was uniformity," Erwin said. "Then they wouldn't have to do it agency by agency."

Blythe: 919-836-4948

Copyright 2012 - The News & Observer, Raleigh, N.C.

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