Cell phones could be used to effectively estimate the location of a user; this is possible as the phones are continuously sending data to the cell tower which is necessary for correctly routing the calls. These towers essentially record the strength of the signal and the direction from which it is being received. Based on these data, the position of the user could be estimated.
Moreover, cell phone tracking is carried out in two ways, first includes the use of historical data which legal authorities obtain from service providers, who maintain such records for billing purposes and are not very detailed. It is the second method, known as prospective tracking involving per minute location of the device, which is raising concerns related to privacy of individuals.
Tracking cell phones may therefore give access to information, the legality of which is still unclear. There are no clear laws which address this issue and as such cell phone tracking is open to misuse. Moreover, there are various ways in which different parties want to use this mechanism. For instance mobile companies may want to track its user and his friends as a value added service, while the law enforcement agencies may want to track people with a suspicious record.
In a February 2010 order, a Philadelphia court gave a ruling that the FBI and police agencies do not need to obtain a warrant in order to get details related to location of American cell phones. The Obama administration also argues that a search warrant is not necessary, if the law enforcement agencies are acting within the purview of order no 2703 (d), which implies that tracking request could be made if the agency believes that it is important and relevant to an ongoing criminal proceeding.
Naturally, warrantless cell phone tracking is bound to raise debate where policy-makers and privacy and human rights activist would come face to face. Law enforcement agencies argue that such tracking would help them avert potential dangers and catch fugitives and law evaders. But, human rights groups believe that it is an infringement of individual privacy and violated the Fourth Amendment rights (which insure people from illegal search and seizure).
Groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Center for Democracy and Technology have started their fight against cell phone tracking and are urging the court to insure that a warrant is essential before federal agencies could track an individual whereabouts.
Another major concern is the availability of devices which could be used to effectively track cell phones anonymously. Information related to using such devices is conveniently available on the internet which would be accessed by anyone. In such a scenario it is very difficult to maintain privacy as one can never be sure about whether he is being tracked or not.
There is little doubt, that if used properly cell phone tracking could provide a mechanism which would help in creating a much more secure environment and ensure effective law enforcement. However, the one thing which needs to be ensure is that it is being used by the right people and for the right causes.