Is Your Phone a Crime-Stopping Device?

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A phone’s GPS tracking capabilities can lead authorities to a suspect. Take, for instance, the recent incident wherein two thieves were found when police used a victim’s phone to trace their whereabouts. Rolando Ojeda and Anthony Castaneda, both of Blue Island, IL were charged with aggravated robbery after they held up two young men. Among the items taken was an iPhone. Because the phone was not turned off, police were able to locate it and the thieves a short distance away using a phone-tracking app.


Proponents of the use of GPS tracking in order to solve crimes claim that it is a major benefit to law enforcement, even providing security for the citizenry or monitoring illegal activity. In one case, police found a stabbing victim hiding in his abductor’s basement by tracking the wounded man’s phone. In another incident, a man and his son were caught trafficking marijuana from Arizona to Tennessee when the suspect’s phone was “pinged”.


Unauthorized Tracking

Some, however, are not convinced that police authorities or other governmental agencies should use tracking because of its potential to violate privacy under the Fourth Amendment. Wire-tapping laws are largely outdated, so police may obtain information from people’s phones, in many cases, without a warrant. Tracking is easily accomplished by locating the cell towers in the proximity of a phone’s usage. Even if a phone is not in use, its location may be picked up by each cell tower it passes. Without reasonable cause, however, obtaining info on people’s whereabouts can be an intrusion.


Accountability is a major concern of those who are wary of police use of GPS phone-tracking capabilities, even if used for locating criminals. Nearly everyone owns a phone, and nearly every phone may be tracked. Even when a phone is turned off, information may be gleaned from it by first “cloning” the device and then downloading material afterward. So far, many cell phone service carriers have been cooperative with police efforts, providing the requested information, in many cases, for a fee. (One local law enforcement agency, though, bought its own tracking equipment at a cost of $244,00 so it would not have to go through a service carrier for information.) For now, the use of cell phone tracking is basically on the honor system, though several civil rights organizations are encouraging courts to delineate the responsibilities and parameters of such usage.

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Katherine Stephens

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