“Can you find me now? Good! Can You Find Me Now? Good!”

ACLU And EFF Sue Justice Department To Uncover Records Of Cell Phone Tracking (7/1/2008)

CONTACT: (212) 549-2666; media@aclu.org

WASHINGTON – The American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) filed a lawsuit today urging a federal court to order the Department of Justice (DOJ) to turn over records related to the government’s use of people’s cell phones as tracking devices. The ACLU filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the records in November 2007 following revelations that federal officials are using Americans’ cell phones to pinpoint their locations, sometimes without a warrant or any court oversight. The DOJ has failed to release the documents or provide an adequate response to the request.

“This is a critical opportunity to shed much-needed light on possibly unconstitutional government surveillance techniques,” said Catherine Crump, staff attorney with the ACLU and lead attorney on the case. “Signing up for cell phone services should not be synonymous with signing up to be spied on and tracked by the government.”

The ACLU submitted the FOIA request to the DOJ after media reports revealed that some government officials claim not to need probable cause to obtain real-time tracking information from people’s cell phones. The reports also suggested that some federal law enforcement agents have obtained tracking data directly from mobile phone service providers without any court oversight.

The request for information includes documents, memos and guides regarding the policies and procedures for tracking individuals through the use of their cell phones, as well as information about the number of times the government has applied for cell phone location information without establishing probable cause and how many times it has been granted.

“The public has an overwhelming interest in the requested information, which concerns our most personal communications,” said David L. Sobel, EFF Senior Counsel and co-counsel on the case. “But remarkably, the Justice Department refused to respond quickly to the request, as the law requires when ‘urgent’ information is at issue. Further delay will allow important privacy policies to be developed behind closed doors.”

Attorneys on the case are Crump, Sobel and Arthur Spitzer, Legal Director of the ACLU of the National Capital Area.

The complaint is available online at: www.aclu.org/freespeech/gen/35873lgl20080701.html

The ACLU’s FOIA request can be found online at: www.aclu.org/freespeech/gen/32893res20071129.html


Does your cell phone give away your location?

That’s a common question, and the simple answer is, ‘sometimes yes; sometime no.’

Cell phones regularly transmit update information back to the mobile telephone switching office (MTSO).  This data is sent when you turn on your phone, at regular intervals while the phone is turned on but not in use, and when you turn off your phone.

So why would your phone silently transmit information on a regular basis?  Quite simply, when you turn your phone on, the phone transmits a handshake to let the cell system know that the phone is turned on, and where in the world you are. This is necessary so that the network will (a) stop automatically routing your incoming calls to voicemail, and (b) to let the network know where to find you to complete incoming phone calls.

If you’re roaming outside of your home area, this turn-on handshake will also sometimes initiate a validity check with your home area carrier to see whether you’re authorized to roam.  If you are, then you’ll be able to make and receive calls without interruption.  If not, when you try to make a call, you’ll be forwarded to an automated or manual system to collect credit card data for billing calls while roaming.

Once you’re ‘logged in’ to the network, the phone will regularly transmit a small snippit of data letting the network know that your phone is still turned on and within range.

When you turn off your phone, you’ll notice that it doesn’t immediately go blank.  In the few seconds between the time you press and hold the turn off button, the phone is communicating the shut-down request with the network so that incoming calls will be routed to voice mail.  This is why a caller will immediately go to voice mail when your phone is off, but if your phone is on it will ring a preset number of times before switching to voicemail.

The network technicians can also manually ‘ping’ your phone.  If it responds, the network tech will also be able to identify the cell site receiving your phone, and sometimes the general direction of the signal coming in from your cell phone.   This function is sometimes used to locate missing hikers. The cell phone is pinged, and the return data is used to estimate the location of the phone (and hopefully the location of the hiker).

The accuracy of the location data provided by your phone will depend on several things. The FCC generally requires cell phone operators to provide location information down to about 100 meters when you call 911, but that accuracy can be improved if your cell phone is equipped with a GPS receiver chip and antenna, and the network recognizes that data.

The use of cell phone records in court proceedings is a related discussion, and one that I’ll cover in a separate posting.