It's no secret that the ability to track a cell phone has led to a sea change in law enforcement surveillance methods. But now a pair of researchers have actually put a number to the plummeting cost of that covert spying in the modern world: Tracking a cell phone's location, they found, costs somewhere between 1.9% and .015 % of the price of tailing someone the old fashioned way.
In a paper published Thursday in the Yale Law Journal, privacy-focused researchers Ashkan Soltani and Kevin Bankston have calculated the per-hour cost to law enforcement of tracking a person's location using every method from officers on foot to police-planted GPS devices to obtaining the suspect's location from their cell carrier. The results show that the cost of 24/7 surveillance operations have been reduced from hundreds of dollars an hour to employ teams of agents to track individuals in shifts to just a few dollars or even just pennies to query AT&T or Sprint for the same location data.
A five-car "surveillance box" operation that has cars ready to inconspicuously tail a suspect in any direction–the standard procedure recommended in law enforcement manuals–costs $275 an hour, according to Soltani's and Bankston's estimate. Tracking the same suspect with a GPS device attached to his or her car costs as little as 36 cents an hour. The cost of tracking that individual's cell phone varies depending on the phone's cellular carrier–AT&T charges cops $5.21 an hour for short term tracking and $1.19 per hour for longer term operations, whereas T-Mobile charges $4.17 per hour and Sprint charges as little as 4 cents an hour.
Those findings put a number on a notion already expressed in the landmark Supreme Court decision in U.S. v. Jones in 2012, that high tech tracking isn't just a more effective version of traditional surveillance but actually a different kind of tracking altogether, according to Soltani. "You have such a drastic reduction in the cost to perform the surveillance that they're different not just in quantity but in kind," says Soltani. "It would be humanly impossible to track the number of people [law enforcement agencies] are currently tracking without this technology. And that's why it's such a game changer."
In the 2012 Jones decision, the Supreme Court declared warrantless tracking of cars using GPS devices to be in violation of the Fourth Amendment for just that reason: As Justice Samuel Alito wrote in his opinion, the ease of tracking someone with GPS makes it more of a potential privacy violation than following someone in a car, even though they accomplish a similar goal.
But the U.S. judicial system has yet to give a clear ruling on whether the same can be said of warrantlessly tracking cell phone locations. In fact, while lower courts have produced conflicting answers on that question, prosecutors seem to have carefully avoided taking the issue to higher courts. "The government has pretty assiduously avoided appealing any of its losses on cell phone tracking, such that we don't have any clear binding precedents from a higher court on when it's ok to track a phone's location in real time," says Bankston, policy director of the Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation.
With their study, the researchers intend to show that cell phone tracking, like GPS tracking, is so cheap that it enables surveillance on a massive scale. In fact, their paper deduces a "rule of thumb" from the Jones ruling and other lower-court rulings to determine when location tracking without a warrant should be considered unconstitutional: "If the new tracking technique is an order of magnitude less expensive than the previous technique, the technique violates expectations of privacy and runs afoul of the Fourth Amendment," they write.
That means cell phone tracking, which is often even cheaper than the warrantless GPS tracking the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional in Jones, require the same level of privacy regulations if not more, Soltani argues. "When it was physically impossible to track everyone at the same time, you didn't need a law for it," he says. "What we're saying is that technology changes what's possible, and as a result, we may need to add legal barriers to compensate for those changing technical barriers."
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