Maine Law Enforcement and Lawmakers on cutting edge of debate over cell phone surveillance

7:27 PM, Feb 4, 2014   |    comments
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AUGUSTA -- (NEWS CENTER) As the Obama Administration tries to quell public outrage over surveillance by the National Security Agency, you might be surprised to know the extent to which police routinely access cell phone data.

NEWS CENTER's Kathleen Shannon was part of a nationwide investigation effort by Gannett, this station's parent company, in which television stations and newspapers in 33 states looked into how law enforcement is using such surveillance techniques. 

Nationwide, one in four law enforcement agencies use a tactic known as "tower dumps" where hundreds or thousands of cell phone numbers are retrieved at once. One in 25 use devices that can track your cell phone activity in real time. Many agencies flat out refused Freedom of Information requests.

Maine takes a very different tack. Law enforcement not only responded to information requests, but did so on camera. Meanwhile, lawmakers are leading the way to addressing privacy concerns.

Maine State Police, who handle the collection and analysis of cell phone data for most of the State, used different techniques in 82 cases last year. Most of them were homicides or felonies.

They use two ways of collecting cell information: the first is known as a ping. When they have a specific phone number that they have reason to believe is related to the crime, they can find which communications tower the number was hitting at the time of the crime.

The second technique is called a tower dump. It refers to collecting all phone numbers that were hitting a particular communications tower during a set period of time. Investigators look for patterns and narrow down which phones may be related to the crime.

"It happens more frequently with missing children, a lost hunter, or lost hiker," says Assistant Attorney General Bill Stokes, who has run the Criminal Division of the Maine AG's Office since 2001. "If you're trying to track the movements of that phone it's a tremendous benefit."

But if you live near or drive by that tower during that period of time, investigators get your information, too. Dumps in particular have led to what many consider infamous abuses in other states. For instance, in Colorado, police retrieved thousands of cell phone records nhile trying to locate a missing girl. They used that information to order 400 people to provide DNA samples. None of which turned up the man who eventually confessed to killing the girl. He made that confession on his cell phone.

Such questionable use of the technology was possible in large part because there were no laws to prevent police from abusing it.

Which is a big part of why last October, Maine became one of the first state's in the country to require a warrant before accessing any cell information. "Think about what the NSA's been doing lately what we've recently learned about their intrusion into our personal lives," says State Senator Roger Katz (R-Augusta). "Think about what the IRS has been doing recently ... should we trust every single cop? Every single prosecutor? No we shouldn't."

But what really makes Maine unique is that police here have been getting court orders and warrants all along. "We're already doing the right thing," says Maine State Police Colonel Williams. "We get court orders or warrants for everything."

Assistant AG Bill Stokes says Maine always maintained court orders and warrants were necessary because cell phone surveillance constotutes search and seizure of either the business records of a company or the personal property of an individual. "That belongs to you which is really no different from getting into your computer getting into your file cabinet home," says Stokes.

Many investigators and legislators see the new law as a fix to something that, at least in Maine, is not broken. State Senator David Burns says if a similar law had been in effect in Boston during last year's marathon bombings, the investigation would likely have been bogged down. "

I can't imagine if they had to get search warrants for each one of those pings they did for thousands of people that were standing there watching that marathon - absolutely not," says Burns. "I can't imagine how that would have resulted in the same result."



























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