ACLU Questions Police Use Of Cell Technology
03/16/10 5:50PM By John Dillon  Download MP3
(Host) Cell phone technology can be used by authorities to track where people are. And the American Civil Liberties Union wants to know whether law enforcement uses the technology in Vermont.
But the ACLU says the attorney general has refused to say. And that's touched off a lawsuit that may explore the limits of privacy and police work.
VPR's John Dillon reports:
(Dillon) Turn on your cell phone and invisible radio waves search for the nearest cell site or tower.
That technology allows you to use your phone while traveling. It's what makes a mobile phone mobile. But the same technology also lets the phone companies - and potentially the government - to follow your whereabouts. Newer phones even come with a GPS chip that pinpoints your location down to a few yards.
(Gilbert) "Eighty-nine percent of us - that's men, women, children - now have cell phones. And we are in a sense accessories; we're part of building what could become a true, total surveillance society."
(Dillon) Allen Gilbert is executive director of the Vermont chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.
The organization wanted to find out how frequently Vermont law enforcement uses cell phone records to track people. But he says the attorney general's office rejected a public records request without acknowledging if records about cell phone surveillance even exist.
(Gilbert) "Well, we haven't found out anything yet, other than if there are records, the attorney general's office considers them to be closed to public inspection."
(Dillon) Attorney General Bill Sorrell says he doesn't believe the practice is widespread. But he says that when UVM student Michelle Gardner Quinn disappeared a few years ago, police did use the technology to focus in on suspect Brian Rooney. Law enforcement had evidence that Quinn borrowed Rooney's phone to make a call. Cell records confirmed that call, and then were used to track Rooney's whereabouts.
(Sorrell) "So that would be a totally appropriate law enforcement use of an investigative tool that was important to an important case."
(Dillon) Sorrell says records dealing with ongoing investigations are not public. But he says he doesn't believe law enforcement is abusing its power to gain access to cell phone data.
(Sorrell) "We'll defend the ACLU suit. But I think if the thought is that Vermont law enforcement is willy-nilly just spying on people out of curiosity, as opposed to legitimate criminal investigations carried out in appropriate ways, the answer is, ‘No.'"
(Dillon) But Gilbert at the ACLU says it's hard to make that judgment in the absence of information.
One issue is whether government has to get a court ordered search warrant to obtain the records. A court order would require law enforcement to show probable cause that a crime had been committed. But Gilbert says some agencies have argued that cell phone contracts waive the customer's right to privacy, and therefore no warrant is required.
(Gilbert) "The one thing we would love to hear from the attorney general or somebody else in state government is that this is not happening in Vermont, the government isn't using cell phone tracking data to track Vermonters' whereabouts. We'd love to hear that. But we can't say that that is the case until government tells us what records it has."
(Dillon) Gilbert said the Vermont case is one of about 15 around the country that explore privacy concerns posed by cell phone technology.
For VPR News, I'm John Dillon in Montpelier.