Fort Worth buys cell phone tracker; what about privacy?

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by CASEY NORTON

WFAA

Posted on February 22, 2012 at 7:06 PM

Updated Wednesday, Feb 22 at 9:14 PM

FORT WORTH — Fort Worth police will soon be able to track a cell phone without permission from a service provider.

The technology is so advanced, it is not yet clear which laws might restrict its use — but the City Council voted to buy the KingFish system without a debate.

Despite ongoing court cases about its legality, there was no discussion when the Council approved $184,000 for the portable cell phone tracker made by the Harris Corporation.

Mayor Betsy Price told News 8 she had not been aware there were potential Constitutional issues involving the tracking device. She added that the city attorney and assistant city manager check the legality of all purchases before the Council votes.

But neither told her or the Council that there were concerns or questions. Legal issues were not mentioned in the Council's agenda packet.

The American Civil Liberties Union says it is well aware of the KingFish and other devices made by Harris Corporation. The group is monitoring court cases for protection of privacy laws and prevention of illegal search and seizure.

The ACLU wants laws at the local level that force police to obtain a search warrant before tracking cell phones, saying it is common for police to buy new technology without public discussion.

"You shouldn't be using cell phone tracking technology to establish probable cause," said Catherine Crump, an ACLU technology attorney. "It's important to have probable cause before you track, and that's what I think one of the primary concerns with this technology is."

Fort Worth's purchase order said police will use the KingFish in "developing probable cause." That phrase is a red flag for defense layer Jerry Loftin. He said he will appeal any ruling the first time he sees tracking evidence from a KingFish without a warrant.

"The Constituion says what? You are secure in your home from an 'unreasonable search and seizure,'" Loftin said. "This is an unreasonable search and seizure where someone can follow you around and track you with a device."

Fort Worth police declined an interview, saying any talk about the device would compromise its investigations.

Maj. Paul Henderson issued a statement saying:

"Police will continue to ensure private citizens' constitutional rights are protected by securing search warrants and court orders based on probable cause."

He added that the KingFish device would only be used without a warrant to find a missing person or in extreme emergencies to locate a suspect.

Mayor Price said she trusts the police department "to use common sense and follow the laws." But, at this point, the laws are not clear how the KingFish can be used — and what restrictions officers must obey.

According to sales documents and the Fort Worth purchase order, the KingFish can track cell phones — even when they are not in use. It acts as its own cellular tower, picking up signals from all phones that are turned on.

Portable devices, including the KingFish, can triangulate the strength of the signal to determine a phone's exact location.

Currently, to "ping" a cell phone, local authorities have to ask a service provider for permission to use their cellular towers. Providers usually ask for a court order or search warrant before they comply.

Because the KingFish acts as its own cellular tower, the service providers aren't needed to track a phone. The ACLU says that will eliminate a layer of privacy protection.

Harris Corporation declined to say which cities, counties or states purchased its tracking devices. A recent Wall Street Journal report found the device was in use by law enforcement agencies in Minnesota, Arizona, Alaska and North Carolina.

E-mail cnorton@wfaa.com

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