ACLU questions police use of cell phone tracking data

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SALT LAKE CITY -- Modern technology has brought us amazing devices, like cell phones, but some worry that a technology used to track an individual's cell phone could be misused by government authorities.

It's called "pinging." Cell phone tracking data can be used to follow anyone at any time. One group wants to know just how, when and why police agencies use it.

Salt Lake City Police Chief Chris Burbank says his department uses it roughly two dozen times a year.


"We've used it to locate individuals that are suicidal, we've used it in robbery situations where victims' phones have been taken," he said.

Burbank says that's how police found a Utah man suspected of kidnapping and killing a Salt Lake City nurse and taking her body to Missouri.

"We pinged (the victim's) phone in order to locate the suspect, because he had the body and the phone with him," he said.

In most cases, police seek the OK of a judge to ping a cell phone.

"We write search warrants and get approval with the court before going forward with these things," Burbank said.

To ensure that's happening, the ACLU has submitted government records requests to six Utah police agencies -- including Salt Lake City and County -- to see what procedures and protections are in place.

Darcy Goddard, legal director of the ACLU of Utah, has unanswered questions. "When they have your cell phone number, can they just go to your cell phone carrier and say, ‘I would like this information about this person,' or do they comport with the fourth amendment requirements of probable cause and a search warrant in order to get that information?"

Salt Lake County Sheriff Jim Winder is worried that the cell phone data records request -- part of a national ACLU effort -- will require too much staff time for budget-strapped agencies, or that it could tip off bad guys about police methods.

"This kind of seems to me to be an effort to fix something that's not broken," Winder said. "If it is broken, let's address it in one location, one jurisdiction, instead of a 34-state press piece."

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, has introduced legislation requiring law enforcement to get a warrant based on probable cause before accessing location information. It would also regulate the use of this information by businesses.


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