Court orders for individuals’ cell phone data sharply increasing

Americans of all stripes, ranging from individuals in Georgia and elsewhere throughout the country who have never been charged with a crime to defendants in ongoing criminal defense cases, can be certain of one thing in our rapidly evolving technological society: Prosecutors and law enforcement agencies are increasingly relying on access to evolving technologies to track individuals and information pursuant to criminal investigations.

One need look no further than at the rocketing number of court orders used to gather cell phone data in recent years to ascertain that.

In 2007, agencies under the umbrella of the U.S. Department of Justice obtained court orders to gather incoming and outgoing data related to private calls about 18,000 times. In 2011, that number more than doubled, jumping to 37,600.

Requests for such orders are commonly made across the entire spectrum of federal and state criminal charges, with obtained data being especially prevalent in drug crimes investigations, including drug distribution and drug trafficking cases.

Many people might think that a warrant is required to obtain cell phone information, but that is true only to a point. For information on incoming and outgoing phone numbers — termed “pen register” and “trap and trace” orders — an investigatory agency need only inform a court that the requested information is germane to an investigation. A request for a wiretap does require a showing of probable cause and a search warrant from an impartial judge.

The American Civil Liberties Union is seeking to keep track of the type of data being requested by law enforcement agencies, and its magnitude.

The trend regarding the latter is clear: Court orders for cell phone data are progressively and sharply increasing.

Source: New York Times, “Justice Department expands hunt for data on cell phones,” Somini Sengupta, Nov. 26, 2012