The New Way Police Can Cheaply Track Cell Phones — Possibly Even Without A Warrant

Cellphone tracker company owner Scott Schober stands in a development area at Berkeley Varitronics Systems, in Metuchen, N.J. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/MEL EVANS
Cellphone tracker company owner Scott Schober stands in a development area at Berkeley Varitronics Systems, in Metuchen, N.J. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/MEL EVANS

With intense code names such as “Jugular” or “Wolfhound,” a new cell phone sniffing technology has caught the attention of law enforcement across the country because it’s cheap, small — and possibly used without a warrant.

The Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday that local police departments in 25 states, including Baltimore, Indiana, and Florida, have already tens of thousands of dollars worth of the handheld equipment that allows police to track cell phones through radio waves emitted when phones search for a nearby cell tower, and only between $6,000 and $9,000 each. Additionally, agencies within the Justice Department and Defense Department, such as the DEA, are the largest purchasers of the technology.

About a dozen states have enacted laws restricting police from using location-tracking devices, requiring warrants beforehand. That’s in part because other signal sniffing tools are more invasive and pose more direct threats to privacy, such as the stingray, which masquerades as a cell tower and siphons location data from nearby phones.

The Wolfhound isn’t a pretender, it’s passive, picking up signals via a small antenna that can be clipped to clothing. But just like other police surveillance tools, details of how police departments are using Wolfhounds is a closely guarded secret.

“We can’t disclose any legal requirements associated with the use of this equipment,” Elise Armacost, Baltimore County Police spokeswoman told the Journal.

Cyberlaw expert Orin Kerr of George Washington University weighed in, saying the Wolfhound’s passive data collecting likely means they don’t need a court order under current federal laws.

Some states are being cautious about using Wolfhounds, seeking at least a court review before deploying them in the field. The Indiana State Police, which bought $6,500 worth of Wolfhounds in 2013, preemptively ask for judicial reviews and court recommendations for such devices to avoid legal complications later in an investigation, the Journal reported.

Law enforcement agencies have increasingly welcomed technology, enhancing investigative abilities through tracking devices such as drones, data, and social media in an effort to reduce and prevent crime.

Police and new technology have a complicated history peppered with intentional and accidental privacy or civil liberty violations. Some police departments have begun using license plate scanners to collect data to locate stolen cars or those that were used in commission of a crime. But privacy advocates worry that, similar to the collection and storage of body camera footage, police departments aren’t protecting the rights of individuals who are just bystanders. That’s what happened in North Carolina when the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police department long used stingrays to track criminal suspects for years, but also everyone else.

Phone tracking equipment isn’t a new law enforcement tool, but their legality has raised questions in the post-Snowden era, where public awareness of state surveillance is heightened. But the law has been slow in catching up, especially on the federal level. Police search of an arrested individual’s cell phone without a warrant was only outlawed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2014 police could no longer search a person’s cell phone upon arrest without first obtaining a warrant except in exigent circumstances like a potential bomb detonation.