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Civil Rights Groups Sue Over Government's Cell-Phone Tracking

The groups also want to know the number of times the government has sought cell-phone location information without court permission and how many times it has obtained the information.

Two civil rights groups have filed a lawsuit asking a federal court to order the Department of Justice to turn over records related to the government's use of people's mobile phones as tracking devices.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Electronic Frontier Foundation filed the suit Tuesday in federal court in Washington, D.C., The complaint was filed after the Justice Department failed to release the records following a request (PDF) by the ACLU under the Freedom of Information Act.

The ACLU filed the FOIA request in November following media reports that federal officials were using Americans' cellular phones to pinpoint their locations without a warrant or any court oversight, the groups said. Some government officials at the time said they did not need probable cause to obtain tracking information from mobile phones. In addition, the reports said some federal law enforcement agents had obtained tracking data from wireless carriers without any court oversight.

In explaining the reason for the lawsuit, ACLU lawyer Catherine Crump said, "This is a critical opportunity to shed much-needed light on possibly unconstitutional government surveillance techniques."

"Signing up for cell phone services should not be synonymous with signing up to be spied on and tracked by the government," she said in a statement.

The ACLU and EFF are seeking documents, memos, and guides regarding policies and procedures for cell-phone-based tracking of individuals. The groups also want to know the number of times the government has sought cell-phone location information without court permission and how many times it has obtained the information.

"The public has an overwhelming interest in the requested information, which concerns our most personal communications," said David L. Sobel, EFF senior counsel and co-counsel in the case.

Marin Perez contributed to this report.

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