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May 20, 2013 at 6:16 AM

Wireless phone tracking is far too easy

The need to update the Electronic Communications Privacy Act to the 21st Century, as the editorial board argued Sunday, is heightened by the willingness by wireless companies to turn over your phone records without a warrant.

A recent nationwide project by the American Civil Liberties Union found law enforcement routinely get geo-location data for cell phones from wireless companies without a warrant. As the ACLU points out, it is incongruous that police must get a warrant to put a GPS device ¬†on your car, but can track your cell phone’s movement without even showing probable cause to a judge.

I first came across this issue reporting on the 2009 manhunt for Maurice Clemmons, who killed four Lakewood police officers. In our book, The Other Side of Mercy, my colleague Ken Armstrong and I learned that detectives were trying to track him via cell phone pings. Officers were camped out in Renton just hours after the shooting because a cell phone linked to Clemmons pinged in the neighborhood. Police were very leery about us reporting those details because cell phone pings, they believed, were a secret weapon.

Not so much, it turns out. Wired reported that Sprint Nextel alone received 8 million request for cell phone pings, a volume so high they created a back-door web portal for police.

But wireless companies – squeezed between an outdated federal law, non-stop requests from law enforcement and customers’ expectations of privacy – are sacrificing their customers’ privacy. The pickle is one reason that wireless firms – including Sprint, in this letter to Rep. Ed Markey, a privacy advocate – want ECPA updated.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder agreed, sort of, under questioning by Rep. Suzan DelBene, D-Medina. Notice that Holder doesn’t know what to say at first, until an aide slips him a briefing paper. Here’s the C-SPAN link.

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