U.S. Marshals Spent Millions on Mass Cellphone Tracking Devices

Also contend some of their work is 'classified'


We have to violate your rights to protect your rights! Don't you get it?
Credit: iluvcocacola / photo on flickr

The American Civil Liberties Union has a document dump today of information they've gotten from federal agencies about their purchase and use of cell phone tracking devices, particularly attached to airplanes to scan large numbers of people.

The ACLU's Freedom of Information request goes back to 2014 following a Wall Street Journal story showing the U.S. Marshals service had been using cell trackers for years. The ACLU sent requests to all the federal law enforcement agencies for information on their purchases and use.

Of note, the U.S. Marshals have spent more than $10 million in cell tracking devices between 2009 and 2014 and have used them to track phones thousands of times. And the federal government has been trying for years to keep this all secret, even though there are significant concerns about privacy violations and lack of proper due process. The Wall Street Journal (paywalled) took note of the contradictions in the way the feds talk about cellphone tracking:

Until 2015, federal law-enforcement officials refused to discuss details of the technology or its use. After the Journal and other media reported on the technology, Justice Department officials have defended its use as a legal method approved by judges and have said the Marshals aren't engaged in spying or intelligence activity.

The new documents, however, show that within the Marshals' Technical Operations Group, or TOG, some of the techniques are classified.

"Because much of the TOG's capabilities, methods and resources are classified or are otherwise 'law enforcement sensitive,' this section sets forth only general guidelines, policies and procedures governing TOG's function and role within the USMS," according to an undated document titled, "Special Services and the Nature of Technical Operations."

The classified designation suggests a mingling of law enforcement with national security and espionage work, two areas usually kept distinct. The technology has been used in Iraq and overseas espionage operations.

Classified information generally isn't used in criminal trials, so it is notable that the Marshals, a criminal justice organization, call some of their technology and techniques classified.

In another document, investigators are warned that they must "minimize, to the greatest extent legally possible" having to give any testimony by people who were using the devices or disclosing the use of techniques for cell phone tracking during the judicial process.

While the U.S. Marshals do also operate outside the United States, it should be of significant concern whenever law enforcement agencies believe they can conceal the nature of the tools they're using to fight crime from their own citizens. That's precisely how the Fourth Amendment (requiring warrants for searches) and the Sixth Amendment (the right to know the nature of evidence being used against you) get violated.

The ACLU has all the documents they've received archived here with their own analysis.

ReasonTV on cell phone tracking below: