It’s become a familiar scene in books, movies, and television shows in which the main characters are forced to go on-the-run: they take their cell phones and break them so as not be tracked by the authorities. This is not the stuff of fiction.
According to a report from USA Today, one in four police departments are able to track individuals using their cell phones with a kind of accuracy that is growing ever more precise. In the story, they highlight the 2006 investigation in which police in New Jersey obtained cell phone data from the suspect’s wireless service provider three separate times in one night without a warrant. Yet, the level of privacy a citizen has a right to expect with respect to their cell phone data is currently a matter of debate.
Tennessee State Senator Mae Beavers is planning on introducing a bill that will require law enforcement officers in her state to obtain a warrant before they are able to track people via their cell phone signals. According to a report from WBIR in Knoxville, Senator Beavers said, “There is a way to use [cell data dumps] as a crime fighting technique and that’s to go to a judge, get a warrant, and use it legally.” A similar measure has been filed at the federal level by US Senator Edward Markey (D-Mass.). Maine and Montana have already passed similar laws, but Texas and California measures protecting citizens’ cell data failed in their state legislatures.
Police can access this information in two ways. One is the “tower dump” in which police get up-to-the-minute information about cell towers to which a suspect’s cell phone is connecting at any given time. The second method is from a mobile unit that acts as a mobile tower, giving police direct access to not only users’ locations (which has to be close by) but also their activity.