September 2011 — Cell phone technology has given law enforcement agents the unprecedented ability to track individuals’ movements.

As of December 2010, the Wireless Association estimates over 96 percent of the overall population of the United States carried a cell phone—approximately 302.9 million people. Even the most basic cell phones can be tracked. Cell phones can be tracked in real time, and cell phone companies frequently retain records on the past travels of their customers.

Last month, ACLU of Oregon joined 33 other ACLU affiliates in a massive coordinated information-seeking campaign by sending public records requests to local law enforcement agencies, large and small, seeking to know when, why and how they are using cell phone location data to track Americans. In Oregon, we’ve requested information from the Oregon State Police and the Portland Police Bureau. Our public records requests are an effort to strip away the secrecy that has surrounded law enforcement use of cell phone tracking capabilities.

Our state and federal constitutions protect against unreasonable searches; ACLU believes the public should understand whether law enforcement in Oregon is seeking this type of information and, if so, under what conditions. Records of a person’s travels can be very revealing, such as whether someone attends church or frequents bars, hotels, shopping malls – really everywhere someone travels.

The ACLU of Oregon believes that the constitutions, as well as a specific Oregon statute, do not permit law enforcement agents to track the location of cell phones without obtaining a warrant and demonstrating probable cause. We filed our public records request because we want to know if the Oregon State Police and Portland Police Bureau agree with us that they must get a probable cause warrant to access this type of information.

Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden has introduced the Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance Act in Congress. ACLU supports this bill because it would require police to get a warrant to obtain personal location information. The bill would protect both historical and real-time location data and would also require customers’ consent for telecommunications companies to collect location data.

Our public records requests are part of the ACLU’s Demand Your dotRights campaign. ACLU is developing this campaign to make sure that as technology advances, privacy rights are not left behind.