Groups Sue U.S. for Data On Tracking By Cellphone

By Ellen Nakashima | Two civil liberties groups filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government yesterday, seeking records related to the government’s use of cellphones as tracking devices.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation sued the government in federal court in Washington under the Freedom of Information Act. Last November, the ACLU had filed a FOIA request with the Justice Department for documents, memos and guides regarding the policies for tracking people through the use of their cellphones.

The groups also want to know how many times the government sought location information without first establishing probable cause that a crime was taking place.

Justice Department spokesman Dean Boyd declined to comment on the suit. But with respect to cell-tracking data in general, he said, “It is important to remember that the courts determine whether or not cell-site data or more precise cell location data can be turned over to law enforcement in a particular case.”

Boyd added that “law enforcement has absolutely no interest in tracking the locations of law-abiding citizens. Instead, law enforcement goes through the courts to lawfully obtain data to help locate criminal suspects, sometimes in cases where lives are literally hanging in the balance, such as a child abduction case or a serial murderer on the loose.”

The ACLU’s FOIA request was made after an article in The Washington Post last fall revealed that federal officials were routinely asking courts to order cellphone companies to furnish real-time tracking data on individuals and that courts sometimes have ordered the data released without first requiring a showing of probable cause.