A North Carolina police department has been secretly gathering data from cellphones and other mobile devices with military-grade surveillance equipment. But the surveillance systems, which are supposed to be used to locate criminal suspects, are also tracking everyone else.
The Charlotte-Mecklenburg police department, which serves nearly a million North Carolina residents, has been using portable surveillance systems that masquerade as a cell phone tower and picks up nearby wireless data on phones, laptops and other devices, The Charlotte Observer reported. The equipment has been frequently used by military and other federal agencies in anti-terrorism efforts and can detect a device’s location and serial number, along with other wireless data. The equipment doesn’t record calls or collect data stored on the device.
According to the Observer’s exclusive report, the police have used the surveillance system weekly for eight years to locate people suspected in cases of violent crimes, missing persons and kidnapping. The police are allowed to use the tracking equipment as long as they get a search warrant, but the fact that innocent people’s data is collected along with those individuals specified on the warrant is disconcerting to privacy advocates.
Local courts have deemed the broad sweep of data collection of innocent bystanders’ mobile device data as an “unavoidable” and necessary risk when trying to investigate crimes. “This is a legitimate need,” Mecklenburg Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Richard Boner, who has approved hundreds of surveillance requests, told the Observer. “It serves a legitimate purpose. I think the police don’t abuse it.”
But privacy advocates said the surveillance orders lack sufficient oversight and transparency to make sure police are limited in their data collection. All of the approved judge’s orders are sealed and are not a part of public record. There’s also no way to determine how many police departments across the country are using the surveillance equipment and how it’s used. The Los Angeles Times discovered last year that the LAPD used similar devices at least 21 times over four months. The Obama administration has told cities not to release information on the equipment
Sophisticated phone tracking equipment has long been a popular tool for police departments nationwide and federal law enforcement. The Missouri state legislature recently moved to ban police cellphone tracking without a warrant. Other states such as Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Wisconsin have also drafted and implemented similar laws to limit police use of tracking technology and better protect residents’ privacy.
The law has slowly tried to catch up with modern technology and limit its potential abuse by law enforcement agencies. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June that police could no longer search a person’s cellphone upon arrest without first obtaining a warrant. Because cellphones increasingly store mass amounts of personal data such as financial and medical information, searching someone’s cell phone doesn’t qualify as an extension of a physical pat down. Police are now limited to checking the physical phone itself and the case except in extraordinary situations, such as if the suspect is “texting an accomplice who, it is feared, is preparing to detonate a bomb.”