The rising use of cell- phones has also made them a convenient investigative resource for law enforcement using cell tracking to gather information or track suspects, raising concerns about constitutional protections and privacy rights.
According to a congressional survey of nine cellphone carriers, they answered 1.3 million demands for information on text messages, caller locations and other information, sometimes without a warrant, from law enforcement agencies at every level of government. In the last five years, carriers have seen the number of requests increase between 12 percent and 15 percent a year, the New York Times reported.
Sprint received an average of 1,500 requests a day last year, with AT&T averaging more than 700 requests to assist police investigations from run-of-the-mill street crimes at the local level to financial crimes and intelligence investigations at the national level.
Cell surveillance can be used to track calls and location of specific users to much broader requests for anyone near a specific tower at a given time, such as when a crime occurred.
At every crime scene, theres some type of mobile device, said Peter Modafferi, chief of detectives from the Rockland County district attorneys office.
The demands are allowed under federal law that generally requires a warrant or other court order to supply the information sought by police. However, it is the exception permitted for emergencies generating concern due to a lack of oversight other than by the mobile carriers.
They can and have rejected unauthorized emergency demands. In two instances, a carrier referred what it considered inappropriate requests to the FBI.
Cell surveillance is a valuable tool in modern communications that should remain available to police agencies. Carriers, though, are asking for, and Congress should establish, clear standards to comply with constitutional limitations on other forms of surveillance.