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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Police justified in utilizing cellphone location tracking

    Local police departments tracking private citizens’ cellphones is not a concept that should be denounced so quickly. It definitely needs to be regulated by both local and federal governments, but cellphone location tracking should still be considered a viable option for local police to use when doing so has the potential to save lives.

    More local police departments, including agencies in Tucson, are using cellphone tracking as surveillance, according to a detailed analysis by the American Civil Liberties Union, which compiled records collected from departments all over the nation.

    These records were obtained through more than 380 requests made in August 2011 by 35 ACLU affiliates under state freedom of information laws.

    Of the 200 agencies that responded, just 10 agencies reported that they do not track cellphones at all. The overwhelming majority of law enforcement agencies do engage in some cellphone tracking.
    The ACLU found that a “tiny minority” consistently demonstrated probable cause and obtained a warrant for cell tracking, leaving tracking policies in “a state of chaos, with agencies in different towns following different rules — or in some cases, having no rules at all.”

    While there is an understandable concern about how this practice could be used to invade privacy, we shouldn’t shy away from the benefits of cellphone surveillance.

    Many times on the news, there are cases of abducted children or elderly people that wandered off or got lost. Setting rules for cellphone tracking is important, but in cases like those, tracking a cellphone can save a life.

    “It’s pretty valuable, simply because there are so many people who have cellphones,” said Roxann Ryan, a criminal analyst with Iowa’s state intelligence branch, in an interview with The New York Times. “We find people and it saves lives.”

    The Times cites one example of an agency in Grand Rapids, Mich., which used a stabbing victim’s cellphone to find him hiding in a basement from his attacker.

    Allowing local police to track cellphones is a preventative measure that seems to help more than it hurts. People are so easy to track already through the surveillance cameras blanketing major metropolitan cities. Tracking cellphones just seems like another way to solve crimes.

    Furthermore, The New York Times article notes that “while cell tracing allows the police to get records and locations of users, the ACLU documents give no indication that departments have conducted actual wiretapping operations — listening to phone calls — without court warrants required under federal law.”

    Having a hard time trusting the government to not abuse power is understandable. However, this shows that the local police are not eavesdropping on the conversations of the general public. It sounds like these officers are doing the best they can to protect their communities.

    Cellphone surveillance makes law enforcement more effective. By using innovative forms of surveillance, police officers can function better in a manner that benefits their community.

    Privacy is an important value, but safety is often overlooked. The United States is a country of household alarm systems and gated sub-developments. This is a blessing that we often take for granted. People don’t understand how lucky they are until their luck is gone.

    Surveillance is something that starts with good intentions, and until the government starts slipping up by publishing private communication or wiretapping phone calls without warrants, the general public needs to trust these good intentions.

    Trust is a hard thing to come by, but so is having an entire local police department willing to watch out for a stranger. Until things get out of hand, critics should consider the possibility that cellphone tracking is not the worse of two evils.

    — Megan Hurley is a journalism junior. She can be reached at or on Twitter via @WildcatOpinions .

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