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A new law in California would require a warrant for all cell phone tracking but AT&T, Verizon, and others are fighting one provision.

Part of what makes a crime procedural drama so exciting is watching the high-tech gadgets they use to catch criminals. Unfortunately, most of what is shown on TV is impossible. For example, every time you hear a character say “let’s enhance that security camera footage so we can see the face of the person walking out of the building,” know that transforming a low-resolution photo to high-resolution is not possible with today’s technology.

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Also, most law enforcement characters are able to quickly locate missing characters once they identify the character’s cell phone number. In reality, there’s a lot of red tape when trying to get permission from the court to trace a cell phone’s GPS location. Law makers in California are trying to standardize the process by requiring the police to get a warrant before obtaining cell phone tracking data. Additionally, the bill is attempting to require cell phone providers to publish all the requests it receives from law enforcement to track a cell phone.

California law SB 1434 will require police to get a warrant before carriers can hand over locational data. That locational data includes the location of the phone when it made (or received) calls, when a phone made or received calls, where a phone could be when it pings a cell tower, and if absolutely necessary, a phone’s GPS history.

The provision of the bill that the big four carriers (AT&T, Sprint, Verizon, and T-Mobile) are opposing is the part that requires them to keep track of all the requests they receive and accommodate, and then publish those requests every year online. The companies’ biggest complaint is that it requires extra man power to publish those findings.

One troubling piece of data that has surfaced in the midst of all of this debate is a report from the ACLU that was released two weeks ago. Based on the organizations findings, many law enforcement agencies all across America don’t go through the proper channels (i.e. get a warrant) to track cell phone users, and carriers oblige.

In response to cell phone providers’ claim of being overburdened by the requirement to publish tracking requests annually, ACLU representative Nicole Ozer was unconvinced. The ACLU found that carriers are covering their tracks without being forced to by the state law – the companies keep track of all data requests to make sure the police are billed for the cost of surveillance. From the ACLU study, the group found a bill sent to the Phoenix Police Department from Sprint for $460 for “GPS Pings” in 2009.

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Mark Leno, San Francisco’s senator, introduced the bill to the California legislature. Looking at the history of police attempting to obtain warrants for cell phone tracking, courts appeared mixed as to whether or not probable cause is really a prerequisite to getting cell phone location data. Nine other states have the same type of bills on their dockets (i.e. requiring warrants before getting cell phone location data).

On a federal level, the Obama administration has made it clear that Americans cannot expect privacy when it comes to cell phones. The claim the government upholds is that citizen’s are “in the possession of a third-party” (that third-party being the phone companies). Therefore, the federal government doesn’t think that warrants should be necessary to get mobile location data.

However, in January the Supreme Court ruled that when the government sticks a secret GPS device to your car, it is in fact conducting a search. The Supreme Court hasn’t ruled whether that requires a warrant, but the Justice Department stated that warrants are usually required during a search. The question becomes, is tracking your cell phone movements a search or not?

The Californian Senate is meeting today to discuss the bill. If you’d like to read more about Californian legislation, check out our blog post about California’s law to protect mobile users by requiring privacy policies for all apps.