Anderson: Privacy caucus will probably address police cell phone data collection

CELL INFO: In the Hampton Roads area, police officers are keeping and sharing the cell phone records of some suspects without warrants.

By Kathryn Watson | Watchdog.org, Virginia Bureau

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — It looks as if members of the Ben Franklin Privacy Caucus have more work to do.

Republican Delegate Richard Anderson, who co-chairs the new bipartisan personal privacy caucus along with Democratic Sen. Chap Petersen, said, “intuitively,” he thinks his fellow caucus members will want to address revelations of a cell phone records database built and maintained by five Hampton Roads-area policing agencies.

The California-based Center for Investigative Reporting released documents this week revealing local governments and police agencies in the cities of Hampton, Newport News, Norfolk, Chesapeake and Suffolk are collecting, storing and sharing cell phone call records and content from telecom companies through subpoenas and from suspects at the time of an arrest, rather than solely through warrants.

That’s a bar that critics, such as the ACLU of Virginia, says is too low. Unlike warrants, subpoenas can be issued without probable cause.

“Yes, I know intuitively that the caucus will be interested in it, and I expect that someone will introduce a bill,” Anderson said in an email to Watchdog.org. “I haven’t talked to anyone about it yet, but I think that it will be addressed in some way.”

It would mean an even busier few months for privacy caucus members, who are already making police use of automatic license plate readers their primary focus for 2015. Local police collection of cell phone data isn’t entirely unrelated.

Last year, then-Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli offered his official opinion that local police departments can’t legally collect license plate information at random and store it indefinitely, without a warrant. Many local police departments continue to capture and store license plate information and vehicle locations at random anyway.

The Hampton Roads Telephone Analysis Sharing Network, as it’s called, keeps information on individual calls such as numbers dialed, when the calls took place and how long they lasted, and even the contents of seized cell phones. Local officials haven’t divulged just how many records they have or how many people are affected.

Hampton city and police officials, however, say they are well within legal guidelines for collecting cell phone information of people with suspected crime connections.

The network began in November 2012. The Peninsula Narcotics Task Force, which includes the local commonwealth’s attorney association, the Virginia State Police, the Newport News Police Department, the Hampton Police Division and oftentimes the U.S. Attorney’s Office, oversees their “telephone analysis room” in the city of Hampton.

“The system is very commonly used in policing throughout the U.S. for criminal intelligence, which is subject to federal guidelines … ” reads a joint statement from the city and police department of Hampton obtained by Watchdog.org. “The Hampton Police Division gathers, shares and retains information after obtaining a search warrant or court order in accordance with local, state and federal law. The Government Data Collection and Dissemination Practices Act contains an exemption for personal information systems maintained by law enforcement that pertain to investigations and intelligence gathering related to criminal activity. … The network is covered by this exemption and is not contrary to the Attorney General’s opinion.”

City and police department officials in Hampton, who don’t want to jeopardize their investigative process, said they would have no further comment.

Virginia’s legislative session begins Jan. 14.

Kathryn Watson is an investigative reporter for Watchdog.org’s Virginia Bureau, and can be found on Twitter @kathrynw5.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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