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RI ACLU Seeks Details on Phone Tracking of Rhode Islanders By State and Providence Police

Posted: August 03, 2011|Category: Police Practices Category: Privacy

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In a campaign coordinated with its national office, the Rhode Island ACLU today sent open records requests to the RI State Police and the Providence Police Department to obtain information as to how and the extent they are using cell phone location data to track  the movements of Rhode Islanders. The requests are an effort to strip away the secrecy that has generally surrounded law enforcement use of cell phone tracking capabilities across the country.

The two police agencies are being asked for such information as: their procedures for obtaining cell phone location records, including the standard of proof and legal process used to initiate requests; statistics on how often such records are sought and the outcome of their use; documents indicating whether the agencies seek records to identify all of the cell phones at a particular location; and invoices reflecting payments for obtaining cell phone location records.

Law enforcement’s use of cell phone location data  has been widespread for years, although it has become increasingly controversial recently. Just last week, the general counsel of the National Security Agency suggested to members of Congress that the NSA might have the authority to collect the location information of American citizens inside the U.S. In a case in which the National ACLU was involved last year, the FBI sought and received tracking information without a warrant, not just for the criminal defendant, but for about 180 other people.

Cell phone technology has given law enforcement agents the unprecedented ability to track individuals’ movements. Cell phones can be tracked in real time, and cell phone companies frequently retain records on the past travels of their customers. The ACLU believes that police should not be able to track the location of cell phones without obtaining a warrant and demonstrating probable cause.  This  is  because records  of  a  person’s  travels  can  be  very revealing.  As one court recently explained, “A person who knows all of another’s travels can deduce whether he is a weekly church goer, a heavy drinker, a regular at the gym, an unfaithful husband, an outpatient receiving medical treatment, an associate of particular individuals or political groups — and not just one such fact about a person, but all such facts.”

Congress is currently considering a bill supported by the ACLU that would require police to get a warrant to obtain personal location information, and would also require customers’ consent for telecommunications companies to collect location data.

“The ability to access cell phone location data is an incredibly powerful tool and its use is shrouded in secrecy. The public has a right to know how and under what circumstances their location information is being accessed by the government,” said Catherine Crump, staff attorney for the ACLU Speech, Privacy and Technology Project. Requests for cell phone tracking information were filed by ACLU affiliates in more than two dozen states.

Updated 4/3/12:

Providence Police Department:

•       Response to Public Records Request 1

•       Response to Public Records Request 2

Rhode Island Department of Public Safety:

•       Response to Public Records Request 1

See All 2011 News Articles >