Who’s listening? Authorities engaging in cellphone tracking

Americans have voted with their wallets and their embrace of an increasingly technology-driven way of life: Slick, new devices that perform more functions and offer a more reliable, faster connection to the world are worth sacrifices in security and privacy.

If we’re willing to share our information, plenty of people will gladly make use of it — especially your government.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Nevada has found that police agencies are increasingly tracking the movements and communications of citizens by monitoring their cellphones. A survey of court documents and public records revealed that authorities sometimes don’t bother obtaining a judge’s approval before they begin such surveillance.

ACLU affiliates nationwide undertook similar research and found “the overwhelming majority of law enforcement agencies that responded engage in at least some cellphone tracking,” from criminal investigations to missing-person emergencies. Across more than 200 agencies, the ACLU found “unclear or inconsistent legal standards.”

Technological advancements are testing the strength of the Fourth Amendment, which guarantees the “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” Authorities must show probable cause to a judge and obtain a warrant before searches can be carried out.

The Fourth Amendment was written for a good reason. If police can enter our homes, take our property or use our devices against us on a hunch or hearsay, or merely engage in fishing expeditions in the hope of finding violations of law, the country would quickly become an authoritarian state.

Just three months ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that police installation of a global-positioning system tracking device on a suspect’s vehicle constitutes a search. The ruling did not apply to cellphone monitoring, but it won’t be long before such a case makes its way to the high court.

On Monday, USA Today reported that even today’s newest mobile devices, especially tablet computers and smartphones, lack sufficient software to prevent hijacking. Hackers can not only steal passwords, data, call histories, contact directories and text messages, but they can pinpoint locations and use microphones to listen to and record conversations.

If hackers can do this, so can the government. Federal counterterrorism authorities previously have declared that the Patriot Act may allow cellphone tracking. Las Vegas police told the ACLU the department provides “a controlled system for ensuring legal compliance to existing state and federal laws” that is “based on a probable cause standard.” However, ACLU counsel Allen Lichtenstein notes that Metro’s response did not specifically address the tracking issue.

Americans have to understand that some police agency, somewhere, inevitably will decide the Constitution’s requirements are too inconvenient, and that some case is too important, to get a warrant. And when they do, your mobile device can easily accommodate their whims. Buyer beware.

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