DOJ Sued Over Cell Phone Tracking Practices

Civil liberties groups claim the Justice Department is bypassing warrants to obtain real-time tracking information on U.S. citizens.

The ACLU and Electronic Freedom Foundation moved July 1 to force the Department of Justice to turn over records related to the government's program of using cell phones as tracking devices. The groups claim the public has a right to know the extent of the government's use of the technique.

In documents filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the ACLU and EFF are seeking documents, memos and guides issued by the DOJ for tracking individuals through the use of their cell phones. The civil liberties groups also want to know the number of times the government has applied for cell phone location information without establishing probable cause and how many times it has been granted.

"This is a critical opportunity to shed much-needed light on possibly unconstitutional government surveillance techniques," Catherine Crump, a staff attorney with the ACLU, said in a statement. "Signing up for cell phone services should not be synonymous with signing up to be spied on and tracked by the government."

The ACLU originally filed a Freedom of Information Act request seeking the information in November of last year after media reports surfaced that the government claims it does not need probable cause to obtain real-time tracking information from a person's cell phone. The government did not respond to the request, leading to the July 1 lawsuit.

"The public has an overwhelming interest in the requested information, which concerns our most personal communications," said David L. Sobel, the EFF's senior counsel. "But remarkably, the Justice Department refused to respond quickly to the request, as the law requires when 'urgent' information is at issue. Further delay will allow important privacy policies to be developed behind closed doors."

In the lawsuit filed July 1, the ACLU and EFF said the DOJ was violating its own internal recommendation that federal prosecutors seek warrants based on probable cause to obtain cell phone tracking information.

"The information now in the public domain suggests that defendant may be engaging in unauthorized and potentially unconstitutional tracking of individuals through their mobile phones," the lawsuit states. "Information pertaining to the DOJ's procedures for obtaining real-time tracking information is vital to the public's understanding of the privacy risks of carrying a mobile phone and of, more generally, the government's expansive view of its surveillance powers."