Columbia, SC (WLTX) - In the Midlands, somelaw enforcement agencies are using an investigative technique called a "Tower Dump" to access data on cell phone towers, even of people who are not related to a specific investigation.
The Richland County Sheriff's Department usedTower Dumpsduring the investigation into a string of car breakins, where weapons and computers were stolen. They combined the Tower Dump information with DNA evidence and in 2011 arrested Phillip Tate on three counts of "breaking and entering a motor vehicle" and one count of "larceny."
"He did break and enter into both of those vehicles, one of them being the vehicle of Sheriff Lott. It was parked at his house," said Fifth Circuit Solicitor Joanna McDuffy in court. "It was his sheriff department issued vehicle. Weapons were taken from that vehicle your honor."
Search warrants we found say Richland Sheriff's investigators requested dumps on two cell phone towers during their investigation.
The dump gave investigators information on every cell phone connected to those towers during the requested time, even if they were not related to the crime.
"So for example if you have a smart phone and you're checking your email, that would cause some communication between your cell phone and one or more cell towers," said Christopher Sogohian, a principal technologist for the ACLU.
He says a connection would also be made if you're texting, tweeting, on Facebook, on SnapChat, or just making a regular phone call.
"The police can then go back to the phone company and ask for identifying information," Sogohian said.
As long as police have a search warrant or court order, cell phone companies will provide the information.
"In recognizing that it's not just the CIA or FBI tracking a terrorist that may have flown over here, this is local law enforcement. As citizens, we sort of have a question: how often is this happening?" said Keith Pounds, president of counterrorism consulting firm Countercon.
Richland Sheriff's investigators used Tower Dumps after the 2005 murder of Gadsden store owner Freddie Hill. Tommy Taylor was arrested and convicted of murder for shooting Hill as he was opening his store.
"We want them to catch the bad guy," Pounds said.
He supports Tower Dumps, but only if a search warrant is signed, the data is purged after an investigation is complete and law enforcement notify subscribers included in the database.
"Inform us," Pounds said. "Or at least those couple of hundred or couple of thousand people, innocent people, inform them that hey we acquired your information for this particular crime. We're going to purge the data and get rid of it."
In 2011, two top providers AT&T and Verizon filled more than half a million requests for your data through court ordered dumps and other emergency requests.
"Am I surprised this is happening?Certainly," said Jay Bender, a First Amendment attorney who represents WLTX. "To turn everybody's telephone data to the police unrelated to any suspicion of crime, I think it's an unreasonable search and seizure. I don't think that's permitted by the Constitution."
When your cell information ends up in a police database, it could stay there a long time. South Carolina evidence control laws say if a suspect is convicted or pleads guilty, police could keep everything they get from a Tower Dump for up to seven years.
"What we recognize is that could not just be hundreds, but thousands of people," Pounds said.
Law enforcement don't have to tell you if they've got what was on your phone.
Currently, there's little legal guidance on how Tower Dumps should be used and what rules law enforcement should follow.
We found a total of five search warrants for cell data that were part of the investigation that led police to goods stolen by Phillip Tate.
"There's so much information we can gather, most of us don't know it's already happening," Pounds said.