12 Investigates: Police tracking cell phones - NBC12 - WWBT - Richmond, VA News On Your Side

12 Investigates: Police tracking cell phones

The cops may be monitoring your cell phone, Keeping tabs on who you call. Tracking your every move. All, without your knowledge or even a warrant. And it's happening across the country and here in central Virginia.

Every time you use your cell phone, it connects to a tower, giving your exact location. This creates a map of your whereabouts. The cell phone companies control the information and they're more than willing to give it up for a price.

Anytime, anywhere, any place... If your phone is on, police could track you.

They're not listening in, but they can tell where you've been, who you talked to, where you are right now. Let's take this a step further: where you shop, go to school, even what church you attend.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed what may be the largest Freedom of Information Act request in history. Trying to find out how, when and why police departments nationwide are tracking our cell phone locations.

They sent the request to hundreds of police departments. 200 agencies responded and turned over information. Of those 200, 95% track cell phones without a warrant. That's 9 out of 10.

"The overall answers to this FOIA was quite disturbing," said Kent Willis. He's the Executive Director of the ACLU of Virginia. He argues cell phone tracking violates your right to personal privacy. "You have a right to make telephone calls when you choose, with whom you choose without the government knowing when you're doing it."

Police departments argued tracking cell phones without warrants can save lives. They say they do it if they need to solve a crime or if they believe somebody is in danger.

And criminal defense attorney Steven Benjamin said they're not technically breaking the law. "It's not at all clear that a search warrant is necessary in order to obtain cell phone information," said Benjamin.

However, in January, the US Supreme Court issued a landmark decision which held putting a GPS device on a car without a warrant violated 4th amendment rights from unreasonable government searches.

Rachel asked Benjamin: "In Virginia, right now, police need a warrant to put a tracking device on your car. but, they don't need a search warrant to track your cell phone and where you've been?

"That's correct. The police in Richmond and any of these surrounding jurisdictions can go to any of the wireless carriers and request information," answered Benjamin.

The cell phone companies are turning over the data — often times for a price. Companies are even sending out catalogs to police with a detailed list of services and prices.

So, are police in central Virginia watching you?

We sent the ACLU's Freedom of Information Act request to Richmond, Chesterfield and Henrico County.

Henrico admitted to the practice. The agency sent us the form officers fill out and give to the cell phone companies. It says urgent, and requests information for an Emergency with immediate danger for life or property. But, its not a warrant and no judge needs to sign off.

Both Richmond and Chesterfield County refused to respond, citing an exemption in the law protecting tactical plans, which could jeopardize the safety and security of law enforcement personnel or the general public.

Benjamin and others said cell phone tracking is an instance where our technology has outpaced our laws.

"The more you permit police to use technology and invade our privacy, the more effective law enforcement will be. The question is.... where do we draw the line?" said Benjamin.

Congress may take up the issue. During a congressional hearing last week, the Department of Justice testified requiring a search warrant to obtain location tracking information from cell phones would cripple investigations.

If you're looking for a link to the story, here's a link to the ACLU finding: link

Here is a map of the breakdown from state to state: link

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