WASHINGTON – The Justice Department says it has no interest in tracking law-abiding citizens by their cell phone movements, a possibility raised in new reports Friday.
The Washington Post reported that federal officials increasingly are seeking real-time data from telecommunications companies in order to track criminal suspects such as drug traffickers, raising eyebrows among civil liberties advocates who fear that innocent citizens could get caught up in the investigations.
The Post reports that in some cases, courts are granting the request without probable cause, despite Justice Department guidelines saying that investigators should meet that standard.
The Justice Department issued a broad statement Friday, saying: "Law enforcement has absolutely no interest in tracking the locations of law-abiding citizens. What we're doing is going through the courts to lawfully obtain data that will help us locate criminal suspects, sometimes in cases where lives are literally hanging in the balance, such as a child abduction case or a serial murderer on the loose."
In the end, Justice spokesman Dean Boyd said that "the courts determine whether or not this data can be turned over to law enforcement," according to the release.
Boyd also said the department believes that in some cases it is sufficient to get a court order based on a standard of "specific and articulable facts" rather than "probable cause" for certain information like the location of an antenna tower that a suspect is using.
"This type of location information — which even in the best case only narrows a suspect's location to an area of several city blocks — is routinely generated, used, and retained by wireless carriers in the normal course of business," Boyd said.
"With respect to obtaining data from a carrier that is potentially capable of identifying a suspect's precise location in a private area not accessible to the public, the Justice Department strongly recommends that field prosecutors obtain a court order based on the probable cause standard," he added.
Most new cell phones can be turned into specific tracking devices for their owners. It's been possible to estimate a caller's location by tracking tower signals, but the federal government is putting in place the enhanced 911 (E911) system to allow emergency responders to locate phones.
Several phone service providers are already marketing this service as way to help track their children, spouses and employees.
FOX News' Malini Bawa contributed to this report.