12 INVESTIGATES: Cell companies turned over millions of records

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - Police monitored more than a million cell phones last year. They were tracking customers whereabouts, keeping tabs on calls, largely without a subscribers knowledge or even a warrant.

Let's face it, your phone is now a tracking device. And police are dialing up the cell phone companies more and more often asking for specific information like a user's whereabouts or even call log.

In response to a congressional inquiry the top cell phone companies finally revealed just how many times they've handed over user's cell phone data to the FBI and other law enforcement agencies. They responded to an estimated 1.3 million demands for subscribers information last year alone.

And some of those requests could cover more than one person because police agencies often ask for 'tower dumps' — a list of every phone in range of a cell tower at a particular time.

The count also doesn't include one of the largest carriers in the U.S., T-Mobile. The company refused to provide a figure, saying only "the number of requests has risen dramatically in the last decade with annual increase of approximately 12 percent to 16 percent."

"You have a right to make telephone calls when you choose , with whom you choose without the government knowing when you're doing it," said Kent Willis, the former executive director of the ACLU of Virginia.

The American Civil Liberties Union has been pushing hard this year to uncover how often police use this tactic.

Law enforcement argues, tracking cell phones without warrants can save lives. Investigators say they do it if they need to solve a crime or if they believe somebody is in danger. In February, we uncovered that Richmond, Chesterfield and Henrico County all use this tactic.

NBC12 legal analyst Steven Benjamin says officers are not breaking the law. He says, it is not clear a search warrant is needed to obtain cell phone information. But he adds, this is a prime example of how our technology has outpaced our laws. He says the courts have yet to weigh in. "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.

We've learned through an investigation by the non-profit Pro Publica there's one more person cell phone companies will not share your location data with... you. The group had four people ask the four major cell carriers for a copy of their location data. Verizon, Sprint, AT&T and T-Mobile all said no.

Response of the cell phone companies to a congressional inquiry - link

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