Activists take ignored FoIA request to the next level

A pair of civil liberties groups is asking a federal court to hand over records describing the extent of the U.S. Department of Justice’s allegedly warrantless tracking of cell phone users.

The lawsuit, filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and American Civil Liberties Union, arose amidst a rash of news reports indicating that the government was bypassing warrants and the need for probable cause in order to secretly track cell phone users. The complaint alleges that a handful of federal prosecutors said they were able to obtain “tracking data directly from mobile carriers without any court involvement.”

The case, filed July 1, will be heard in a U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. The ACLU previously filed a Freedom of Information Act request last November, but says its request remains unfulfilled.

“The information now in the public domain suggests that [the DOJ] may be engaging in unauthorized and potentially unconstitutional tracking of individuals through their mobile phones,” read the complaint. “Information pertaining to the DOJ's procedures for obtaining real-time tracking information is vital to the public's understanding of the privacy risks of carrying a mobile phone and of, more generally, the government's expansive view of its surveillance powers.”

“Signing up for cell phone services should not be synonymous with signing up to be spied on and tracked by the government,” said ACLU staff attorney Catherine Crump. “This is a critical opportunity to shed much-needed light on possibly unconstitutional government surveillance techniques.”

A DOJ representative declined comment on the suit but said the agency has “absolutely no interest in tracking the locations of law abiding citizens.”

“It is important to remember that the courts determine whether or not cell-site data or more precise cell location data can be turned over to law enforcement in a particular case,” said DOJ National Security Division spokesman Dean Boyd. “Instead, law enforcement goes through the courts to lawfully obtain data to help locate criminal suspects, sometimes in cases where lives are literally hanging in the balance, such as a child abduction case or a serial murderer on the loose.”

While it may not be directly related to the ongoing NSA wiretapping scandal, it appears that the DOJ has now been thrust into the ongoing privacy debate surrounding the government’s secret acquisition and usage of telecommunications data – a battle that the Justice Department previously avoided.

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