Texas civil liberties advocates seek limits on law enforcement tracking cellphones

by KELLEY SHANNON, DallasNews.com  |  published on January 12, 2013

Texas tracking cellphones

Smartphones and certain apps can help you find where your kid is hanging out, check on the whereabouts of an absent co-worker or spy on your spouse.

But the satellite navigation that allows for such tasks also helps police track a phone user’s exact location, and Texas civil liberties advocates say that kind of surveillance without court approval goes too far.

They want to update state law to require a court-ordered warrant for cellphone GPS tracking by law officers, with some exceptions. Police can currently track someone’s whereabouts by requesting cellphone company records, said Scott Henson, whose Austin-based gritsforbreakfast.org is influential among criminal-justice policy watchers.

“The law has not kept up with the technology,” said Henson, who is circulating proposed legislation to modernize the state Code of Criminal Procedure. No lawmaker has agreed to sponsor the measure yet, he said, but “folks really seem to intuitively understand that it’s a big deal.”

The American Civil Liberties Union of Texas and EFF-Austin, a “cyber liberties” organization, are also working on the effort, part of a national movement toward tightening up privacy for mobile device users.

Texas law officers currently have to get a court warrant for a wiretap, Henson said, and a court order is required before police can attach an electronic tracking device to someone’s vehicle.
But he said the rise of smartphones equipped with GPS navigation means police can simply subpoena tracking records from cellphone companies, which received 1.3 million such requests in 2011.
New technology, apps and information-sharing among federal, state and local law enforcement provide additional ways to get the data, said Matt Simpson, a policy strategist with the ACLU of Texas.

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