Senator Franken Questions Legality Of DOJ Having Mobile Operators Reveal Where People Are
from the that-ol'-4th-amendment-thing dept
It’s long been known that law enforcement relies heavily on mobile phone providers to give them data on where people are, based on the location info on their mobile devices. Back in 2009, a Freedom of Information Act request revealed, for example, that Sprint had provided law enforcement officials with GPS data a staggering 8 million times in the previous year. Now, it’s important to note that many of those times were apparently multiple “pings” on the same person/device. But, still. You can bet those numbers have only gone up. Last year, Senator Wyden proposed legislation requiring that law enforcement get a warrant. He has also hinted strongly at the idea that part of the government’s secret interpretation of the PATRIOT Act involves access to location info on just about anyone with a mobile device.
It appears that others are taking some interest in the possibility of widespread government tracking without a warrant as well. Senator Al Franken has sent a letter to Attorney General Holder asking some pretty pointed questions about how frequently the government gets location data from mobile service providers, and what legal standards it uses. He points to the Jones ruling, which suggested there could be a 4th Amendment violation for placing a GPS device on a car, as one of the reasons for his concern.
I was very concerned to read recent reports suggesting that state and local law enforcement agencies may be working around the protections of Jones by requesting the location records of individuals directly from their wireless carriers instead of tracking the individuals through stand-alone GPS devices installed on their vehicles. I was further concerned to learn that in many cases, these agencies appear to be obtaining precise records of individuals’ past and current movements from carriers without first obtaining a warrant for this information. I think that these actions may violate the spirit if not the letter of the Jones decision.
I am writing to ask you about the Department of Justice’s own practices in requesting location information from wireless carriers. I am eager to learn about how frequently the Department requests location information and what legal standard the Department believes it must meet to obtain it. I would also like to know how the Department may have changed these practices since the Jones decision.
While I certainly appreciate this effort and line of inquiry — I’m not sure that Jones really makes that much of a difference. As we said when it came out, the Justices really danced around the larger issues, with an extremely narrow ruling, which left open the question of how it applied to GPS devices that weren’t put on the cars by law enforcement. That is, the ruling focused almost entirely on whether or not the placing of the device constituted a search — not about the use of such a device. Still, the government’s actions need much greater scrutiny here, as there’s an awful lot of evidence suggesting that law enforcement is using the power to get people’s locations from their mobile phone providers at an incredible rate, and with little to no oversight. I doubt that AG Holder will provide useful answers to this request, but it’s still good that Senator Franken is asking.