It's been well-established that the location-tracking software in modern smart phones is alarmingly invasive. Most of the attention, however, has focused on what the respective cell-phone companies might be doing with customer location data, i.e., marketing, advertising.
The American Civil Liberties Union, meanwhile, isn't so concerned with companies spying on people using cell phone-tracking data as with the cops spying on people using cell phone-tracking data.ACLU chapters in 39 different cities this week sent out a grand total of 379 records requests to law-enforcement agencies seeking disclosure of all instances in which cell phone-tracking data was acquired by police.
In Washington state, the ACLU sent requests to four police agencies in Tacoma, Bellevue, Yakima, and Spokane.
Doug Honig, the ACLU's communications director, tells Seattle Weekly that the civil-rights organization has no specific reason to think any of those agencies have done anything illegal. He just wants to be sure. "When government gathers [cell phone tracking] info, it can show a picture of people's movements and what they're doing," Honig says. "If law enforcement gets this info, they should do it by warrant and because there is illegal activity involved."
Honig says the ACLU is particularly concerned given an incident that happened in Grays Harbor County involving an activist from Olympia named Phil Chinn (who was the subject of a Seattle Weekly cover story by the great Rick Anderson last year), who was arrested on his way to a protest and charged with DUI. Those charges were later dropped in a half-million-dollar taxpayer-funded debacle when, among other things, it was revealed that police had arrested Chinn because of his political views, not because of anything to do with driving under the influence.
Honig says that a similar case in Michigan happened, in which cell phone-tracking data was used to monitor an activist and to suppress legal protests.
It's that kind of thing that the group will be looking for when the law-enforcement agencies turn over their data.
Rest assured we'll have our own iron in this fire soon enough too.