According to the US Justice Department, law enforcement officials will now have to be more transparent about their use of cellphone tracking devices, following controversy over the government's unrestrained use of this surveillance technology.

The devices, which have been used to collect cellphone data from those who are not part of any investigation, are often deployed in airplanes that fly over large cities scanning huge populations in order to find the whereabouts of a fugitive or suspect. 

Graphic: Washington Square Journal. Image 1.Graphic: Washington Square Journal

For years, FBI agents didn’t need warrants to use the devices, but in recent months, senior officials have required agents to receive warrants from judges, and to be more forthcoming about how and why the devices are being used. Officials remain secretive about the device itself, however, fearing that revealing too much would give criminals clues about how to defeat the technology. But they also don’t want to reveal information that could potentially help defense lawyers in prosecutions where warrants weren’t used. 

In addition to scanning areas for data, law enforcement officials can also ask phone companies to release information about a suspect’s usage and location. They must first receive permission from a judge, though they can circumvent this formality by claiming the case is an emergency (missing-persons cases or when there is a risk of death or serious injury.) Phone companies rarely ask that the nature of the emergency be verified, however, and many law enforcement officials are known to abuse the policy. The number of emergency requests by law enforcement nation wide increased by 8% between the first half of 2014 and the second half, according to Verizon Wireless, the nation’s largest service provider. And AT&T has more than 100 full-time employees dedicated to sorting through the requests from law enforcement and civil lawsuits, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Critics of government use of surveillance techniques hope that cellphone tracking devices will be used more responsibly now that a warrant is required, though the new mandates do not articulate exactly how much law enforcement officers need to reveal about their plans to use the devices or how quickly they need to do it.