Documents say feds can track cell phones' locations without telecoms' help
John Byrne
Published: Monday November 17, 2008

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Federal law enforcement may be able to track cellular phones users' locations without the help of the telecommunications companies themselves, according to a report Sunday.

Documents obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union under a Freedom of Information Act request suggest that existing technology allows law enforcement to bypass wireless companies in locating individual cell phone users.

Using "triggerfish" technology, mobile phones are tricked into transmitting their serial numbers, phone numbers and other data by posing as a cellular phone tower. Until now, it's been believed that such technology could only be successfully employed with the help of the telecoms themselves, because the specific location of the phone couldn't be traced with enough accuracy.

But a document obtained by the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation from the Justice Department in a lawsuit and posted online last week says triggerfish can be deployed "without the user knowing about it and without involving the cell phone provider."

The detail was noted by the ACLU's Rachel Myers on Daily Kos and highlighted in a posting on Ars Technica on Sunday.

As Ars Technica explains, "That may be significant because the legal rulings requiring law enforcement to meet a high "probable cause" standard before acquiring cell location records have, thus far, pertained to requests for information from providers, pursuant to statutes such as the Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act (CALEA) and the Stored Communications Act."

"The Justice Department's electronic surveillance manual explicitly suggests that triggerfish may be used to avoid restrictions in statutes like CALEA that bar the use of pen register or trap-and-trace devices—which allow tracking of incoming and outgoing calls from a phone subject to much less stringent evidentiary standards—to gather location data," Ars Technica adds. "'By its very terms,' according to the manual, 'this prohibition applies only to information collected by a provider and not to information collected directly by law enforcement authorities. Thus, CALEA does not bar the use of pen/trap orders to authorize the use of cell phone tracking devices used to locate targeted cell phones.'"