For the past year, the ACLU has been gathering information on local law enforcement agencies’ use of cell phone location tracking. (We’ve written about what we’ve learned here, here, here, here, and here.) In addition to everything we’ve discovered about location tracking itself, we’ve also learned about a number of other techniques law enforcement and the telcos can use when they work together. Sometimes the information came to light because, as with this telecom data retention chart, the information on the other techniques was mingled with the information on cell phone location tracking. Sometimes it was because law enforcement agencies misunderstood our public records requests and sent us everything they had related to telephones.
For example, we received a Verizon form from Pittsfield, Mass. that law enforcement could use, among other things, to request a “Voicemail Pass Code Reset” in the case of “immediate danger of death or serious physical injury to a person.” We do believe that there are certain emergency situations, for example to locate a missing person, where using cell phone information without a warrant is okay. Also, one of the biggest problems with cell phone location tracking is that it is completely surreptitious—unless location information is introduced in a criminal case, an individual rarely learns that he or she was tracked—but in the case of a changed voicemail password, it would become pretty obvious pretty quickly. Dude, I can’t access my voicemail.
T-Mobile documents we received from Irvine, Calif. demonstrate that law enforcement is not just asking for voicemail password resets in emergencies, but also in investigations, and that Verizon is not the only provider capable of handling such requests. The documents show that T-Mobile offers several options to officers interested in voicemail:
Other techniques for accessing a subscriber’s phone account are also available to law enforcement. According to a Qwest document we received from Omaha, Neb., the company’s Emergency Response Center can, in emergency situations, limit a phone line to incoming calls only and can also change the subscriber's telephone number.
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If all this makes you nostalgic for a good, old-fashioned landline, think again. Verizon has the ability to:
Apparently Verizon will do these techniques for any law enforcement agent who provides the phone number and address for the target phone and his or her own name, dispatch number, and contact information. There is no court oversight over these functions.
The vast majority of law enforcement agents are good public servants who want to do the right thing and keep us safe, but our history is strewn with examples of individual law enforcement agents—and sometimes entire law enforcement agencies—who abused their power to the detriment of individuals’ liberty. It is for that reason that, as technology gets smarter and smarter, we need to make sure that legal protections keep pace.