NYPD tracking cell phone owners, but is the practice legal

(NY DAILY NEWS)   The NYPD is amassing a database of cell phone users, instructing cops to log serial numbers from suspects’ phones in hopes of connecting them to past or future crimes.

In the era of disposable, anonymous cell phones, the file could be a treasure-trove for detectives investigating drug rings and other criminal enterprises, police sources say.

“It’s used to help build cases,” one source said of the new initiative.

“It doesn’t replace the human element, like debriefing prisoners, but it’s another tool to use that we didn’t have in the past.”

A recent internal memo says that when cops make an arrest, they should remove the suspect’s cell phone battery to avoid leakage – then jot down the International Mobile Equipment Identity number.

The IMEI number is registered with the service provider whenever a call is made.

And that data could allow a detective to match, for example, a cell phone used by one suspect to a phone used by another.

There are limits to the data’s usefulness – all Chinese-made cells sold in India have the same number and some overseas cells are embedded with fake numbers.

Still, civil libertarians are alarmed by the new policy since normally a warrant is needed to obtain information such as calls made or numbers in an address book.

New York Civil Liberties Union associate legal director Christopher Dunn said it appears the NYPD is “taking phones apart to get information” without warrants.

“It’s hard to believe they feel there’s a real need to take out the battery to prevent leakage,” he said. “Instead, it looks like they’re doing this to circumvent the warrant process.”

The cell phone information joins another database of more than 20 million 911 callers that the NYPD has been building. It has paid off.

In one case involving a 911 call, detectives solved a burglary pattern after the suspect left a slip of paper with his cell number on it at a crime scene, Deputy Commissioner Paul Browne said.

The phone was disposable so no owner information was available, but police were able to track it to the suspect because he had used it to make a 911 call after he was assaulted.

The NYPD started collecting 911 data for incidents involving a police response in 2003. Four years ago, it began putting the information into its new computer nerve center, the Real Time Crime Center.


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