May 21, 2018
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Protection for needles in the haystack: Striking a balance on cellphone records


As long as your mobile phone is on, your wireless carrier tracks your location. It’s relatively easy for law enforcement to obtain and sort through phone companies’ geolocation records.

A Gannett investigation published last week examined 125 law enforcement agencies in 33 states and found that a quarter have conducted a “tower dump,” in which they demand that phone companies surrender all phone activity records from a particular cell tower. Those records do not contain the content of phone conversations, but they do include location information.

The theory is that police will narrow in on a suspect and ignore the rest of the information.

Critics admit that new technologies have handed law enforcement useful surveillance tools. But they rightly argue that protections against misuse haven’t kept up. A decades-old distinction between communications content, which boasts strong legal protections, and phone records, which do not, is less comforting now that law enforcement can easily collect and analyze new sorts of records. It used to take many officers to tail a suspect continuously. Now, with the right order in hand, all it takes is a visit with the phone company.

Lawmakers should draw new lines. Some have already proposed requiring a warrant for geolocation data. It’s worth debating under which circumstances that might make sense.

Most important is to prevent the misuse of innocent Americans’ location records. Once police find the needle, they shouldn’t go searching through the rest of the haystack.

The Washington Post (Dec. 15)

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