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ACLU digs into mobile location privacy with huge police records request

August 4, 2011 |  1:03 pm

Cellphone

The American Civil Liberties Union is bringing its heavy artillery to bear on the mobile location privacy debate.

The civil advocacy group has coordinated 34 of its offices to send 375 public records requests to police and law enforcement agencies across the nation, requesting comprehensive information about how police obtain and use cellphone locations and other Internet data to hunt criminals.

"All too often, the government is taking advantage of outdated privacy laws to get its hands on this valuable private information by demanding it without a warrant," the ACLU said in a statement on its website. "The public has a right to know how and under what circumstances their location information is being accessed by the government –- and that is exactly what we hope our information requests will uncover."

State public records laws require state-affiliated agencies to provide many kinds of operational records upon request, generally within a few weeks. Agencies can argue that certain records and documents are protected from public view, however.

The ACLU's broad requests include police training materials, policies and communications concerning how mobile data is obtained, how long it's kept, how frequently it's used in criminal investigations, how much money is spent on it, and the level of suspicion necessary for officers to request the information or to seek a warrant to get records from wireless providers or phone makers like Apple Inc. or Google Inc.

The group also requested information on police use of face-recognition technologies and social-network investigations. 

The ACLU created an online map that names all the law enforcement agencies to which it sent request.  In California alone, the group sent the request to more than 50 agencies.  A copy of the request is posted in PDF form here.

The requests were also sent by ACLU groups in Alabama, Arizona, San Diego and Imperial counties, Connecticut, Washington, D.C., Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, eastern Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

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-- David Sarno

Photo: Volunteer Victoria Corless, left, and Marlo Mole, right, make calls on behalf of Republican Senate candidate Carly Fiorina in May, 2010.  Credit: Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times

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