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Cell phone crime tracking: How far police can go

ALBANY -- GPS technology can be extremely helpful to law enforcement looking for suspects of a crime.  Police often use cell phone usage to help piece together their investigations.  But today's smart phones are much more than devices for talking.  Many of them have apps you download for free which then take from you all sorts of personal data.  Can the police access that, too?
 
There are apps on our phone we feel so connected to, we can't live without them.  But some we don't realize may be connected to us in ways we don't realize.  Apps can pull information like "where you are, who's in your contact list, what phone calls are you making,  are you on the phone," said Larry Zimbler, CEO of Liberteks.

That's all data which free apps pull from you when you use them -- mainly to target advertising.  But that information may also help police fight crime.  Police say there is a benefit to the public.  From finding missing children who have phones, to finding property, or "getting to a phone that's stolen because it's being used by the thief and still transmitting GPS information," said Troy City Police Captain John Cooney.

Apps or GPS transmission can even help find a wanted suspect.  "It's a new place for the law to go," Cooney said.

According to Cooney, departments would not check anyone's location "at will" and there are safeguards in place to protect privacy.  Cooney tells us a judge would have to decide if police can access those records.  "The ability to get that warrant will absolutely be based on the fact that there is a criminal investigation ongoing and it involved the person in question that we're going to track," he said.

Several court cases across the country are testing tracking for police departments and may map out the legality of doing it, at all.  But the New York Civil Liberties Union takes the position that it should not be "a willy-nilly kind of fishing expedition on the part of police departments to try to track down suspects," says Melanie Trimble, Capital Region Chapter Director.

Trimble says consumers should be aware that many free applications access personal data.  A Carnegie Mellon University study earlier this year reveals that Angry Birds can access your location -- Shazam does too -- even "Brightest Flashlight."

"It's very important that consumers be vigilant about this, and if they want to participate with an app that they should be fully informed of the capabilities for tracking their activities," Trimble said.

CBS6 reached out to Lincy Jacob, a former Albany County ADA and criminal law attorney.  She said while police can and do locate you by your phone's signal hitting cell towers, using apps to track might open up a whole new can of worms for law enforcement.  She agrees with Captain Cooney saying this is a gray area for law enforcement to go, but believes a judge would not quickly sign a warrant, especially since it's unclear how long the apps would keep your information, and whether or not it yielded information before you would even be a suspect for a crime.