Sunday, April 01, 2012

Routine cellphone tracking in the U.S.

There is a must read as context for the Canadian C-30 legislation that is pending, the lead from the New York Times today: "Police Tracking of Cellphones Raises Privacy Fears." The American Civil Liberties Union has put together records from police departments across the U.S. showing widespread cellphone tracking that has become an ordinary thing:
Law enforcement tracking of cellphones, once the province mainly of federal agents, has become a powerful and widely used surveillance tool for local police officials, with hundreds of departments, large and small, often using it aggressively with little or no court oversight, documents show.

The practice has become big business for cellphone companies, too, with a handful of carriers marketing a catalog of “surveillance fees” to police departments to determine a suspect’s location, trace phone calls and texts or provide other services. Some departments log dozens of traces a month for both emergencies and routine investigations.
This widespread use of cellphone tracking seems to be a product of the Bush administration's vast NSA eavesdropping for terrorism operations which was quite controversial but somehow still managed to gain Congressional approval, including immunity for phone companies against lawsuits. Apparently what was good at the national level in the U.S. crept down into state and local police departments' ethics.

We have not had the same experience as the Americans so comparisons are never exact. This report is revealing, however, of how things could possibly go for us if we were to travel down a road which created a permissive environment for warrantless internet surveillance with the proposed C-30. The notion that law abiding citizens have nothing to worry about doesn't hold up when you see such evidence of law enforcement tracking cell phones even in non-emergency situations.

C-30 is going before a Commons committee at some point in the next few months. This U.S. experience could be helpful when it does. It's a reminder that there needs to be a check on law enforcement and that check is the judicial warrant.