Is your phone snitching?

Snooping on how police use your cellphone and social-network info

A decade ago, your photos, letters or receipts could hide in a filing cabinet at home, and if police wanted them, they would need a search warrant.

Now, so much of that material is stored on cellphones and online, raising the question: Are police going through the same pains to get that private information?

The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California is asking roughly 60 law enforcement agencies across the state—including local police, sheriffs and the California Highway Patrol—to detail how they tap into individual phone records, Facebook accounts, GPS data and other private information.

“If the government is allowed to collect detailed personal information without individual suspicion—if it’s just stockpiling, then that could lead to an Orwellian situation,” said Linda Lye, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Northern California.

The fear is that when technology intersects with civil liberties, it can be used “for ill or for good and for everything in between,” Lye said.

Just look at Bay Area Rapid Transit, which recently shut down cellphone service at its subway stations in order to thwart a planned demonstration over a fatal shooting by transit police.

Or the London riots, where the use of social networks to draw out protesters is now being held up as evidence to send organizers to jail.

Lye wrote an eight-page information request invoking California’s Public Records Act, which asks about law enforcement’s use of video surveillance, facial-recognition technology and license-plate detectors.

But the ACLU’s primary concern is that officers might overstep their bounds by finding people’s whereabouts through their phones. In a press release, the organization cited the discovery that iPhones are saving location data, and that Sprint received more than 8 million demands from law enforcement agencies for such data in a 13-month window from October 2008 to November 2009.

“The right to privacy is confused with the idea that ‘I have nothing to hide,’” Lye said. “The question really is, ‘Do I have control over my personal information—do I want the government to know where I am all the time when it’s none of their business?’”

That sort of information could certainly help in linking a suspect to a crime scene, says Davis Assistant Police Chief Steven Pierce. It wouldn’t prove guilt, but it could at least negate a suspect’s claim that he or she was elsewhere when a crime happened.

But getting access to such phone records would require probable cause to search, a warrant application and the OK from a judge.

“This all takes time and energy,” Pierce said. “It’s not something we’d do except on the most extreme cases.”

Davis is one of the few police departments who have given the ACLU any information; most agencies, including the Sacramento Police Department, have said they need more time.

Pierce’s letter, obtained by SN&R through another public-records request, notes that Davis police have one surveillance-camera system and two GPS tracking devices.

But the department would not divulge attempts to gather information from phones, social-networking sites or surveillance videos, citing state codes and case law that exempt investigation materials.

It’s probably no big deal that others know about that one time that you were on a specific street, Lye says. But she’s worried police could map enough of your movement to paint an intimate portrait.

“I understand the concern,” Pierce said. “But the reality is we don’t have direct access.”

Still, the ACLU is backing legislation from U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, to restrict disclosures of individuals’ locations.

It also is supporting a bill by state Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, that requires a warrant in order for law enforcement to search the phones of people who are arrested.

Senate Bill 914 is a direct rejection of a California Supreme Court case that allowed such searches without warrants.

The bill has passed both houses of the state Legislature and will likely head to the governor’s desk soon.

Like Pierce, Sacramento police say they are unlikely to seek so much private information except in the most serious cases, such as homicides. And even then, it is done by the book.

“It’s all California-law governed, it’s no different than searching for anything else,” said Sgt. Norm Leong, a spokesman for the department. “The court’s always trying to balance that government intrusion in privacy rights, but that’s why you have to have legal justification.”

Leong and Pierce both said that what private citizens really have to worry about is the stuff they post online, often more publicly than they realize.

With the responses from law-enforcement agencies, the ACLU will try to evaluate what technology police and sheriffs have at their disposal and what protection the public gets in return for surrendering those privacy rights.

“This whole process is shrouded in secrecy,” Lye said. “We don’t know what the agencies are doing.”