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Cell phones offer law enforcement an unprecedented look into our lives, from social network analysis to communications monitoring in real time. Back this project and we’ll investigate whether local police departments have abused their access.

Back this work
*This project is live and producing stories.
At $2,500 MuckRock is providing sustainable reporting you won't get anywhere else.

100% funded, thanks to you! Let’s build on this.

Thank you so much for your support of this project! With a little less than a week left in the campaign, we’ve decided to release some stretch goals to expand this investigation further and add some benefits for subscribers.


With $500 more in support: We’ll create and release an infographic/interactive map to keep track of the state-by-state findings

With $1,000: We can offer the final product — all our stories and findings — in an e-book, available to all backers.

With $1,500: We’ll be able to produce an additional story a month for The Spy in Your Pocket.

Help MuckRock map just how law enforcement across the country use cell phone data in their investigations.

The vast majority of people in the US use cell phones, and often carry them 24/7. Beyond completely changing the way people keep up with each other, mobile devices have also revolutionized law enforcement in a number of ways.

You’re carrying a device in your pocket that’s constantly recording your location, your private communications and increasingly your purchases and web history, as well. Law enforcement across the country are investing heavily in ways to tap into these data streams. But just how they’re using this data remains unclear.

The sheer ubiquity of mobile devices and cell phone towers together grant law enforcement a staggering array of investigative tools. Whether by obtaining location data from carriers, analyzing call history to track social networks, deploying Stingray devices that spoof cell towers and log all devices within range, or tapping into calls and other communications themselves, law enforcement leverage mobile devices for a range of investigate purposes.

Cell phone tower

Law enforcement have access to a wide range of mobile phone data, including location logs produced by tracing cell tower connections. (Image: jscheib via Creative Commons)

But technology has outpaced legal restrictions and public awareness regarding how investigators obtain, share and retain such data from mobile devices. We need a clearer picture of precisely how and to what extent law enforcement use cell phone data right now in order to consider how they ought to use them in the future.

Here’s what you’ll get:

  • Two stories a month outlining the ways in which law enforcement across the United States collect and analyze data from mobile devices.

  • Exclusive interactions and engagements with MuckRock staff in BEACON discussion forums.

  • Instant updates to our document requests: You’ll see what we’re filing for, what we’re getting, and how agencies are responding (or not) in real time.

  • Access to every story, by every writer on BEACON.

Follow the paper trail.

Your generous backing will allow MuckRock to submit hundreds of public records requests to local, state and federal law enforcement agencies across the country. In particular, we’ll request:

  • Invoices from phone companies for call logs, location data and phone call metadata.
  • Contracts, invoices and service agreements between law enforcement and companies that sell cell phone monitoring technology, such as the Harris Corporation, manufacturer of the Stingray device
  • Policy documents outlining the procedures and restrictions used by investigators to obtain, store, access and share cell phone data.

As with past projects investigating unmanned aerial vehicles (aka drones) and license plate readers, we’re confident that we’ll fine tune our records requests as we dive in. We’ll post all documents and data we obtain in full online for other journalists and researchers to analyze independently.

Screen Shot 2014-05-29 at 2.27.34 PM.png

Advanced surveillance technologies like the Stingray cost thousands of dollars from agency budgets — financial records offer one way of tracking which departments are using particular tracking methods.

Help us find best (and worst) practices around cell phone monitoring.

Cell phone data is a critical tool for law enforcement, and many agencies no doubt have strong protections in place to protect sensitive data. By investigating procedures nationwide, MuckRock will uncover which departments are doing things right, and which are vulnerable to abuse.

Images from Martin Abbeglen

Only a couple days left. Help us reach our stretch goals!

June 26, 2014 at 5:40 pm

You may have heard that the Supreme Court unanimously ruled yesterday that cell phones of arrested suspects can’t be searched without a warrant. We’re still working through the ruling, but it makes this project more timely than ever.

In the wake of this ruling, police departments and prosecutors from coast to coast will need to examine their procedures around cell phone data as a source of intelligence. Cases will be thrown out and evidence collection strategies revamped and clarified.

While the ruling pertained to cell phone searches upon arrest, Chief Justice Roberts noted that mobile devices have become “such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy,“ and thus require strong privacy protections. While law enforcement and the intelligence community have long insisted that cell phone users have little expectation of privacy in their device, this ruling suggests otherwise. Now is the ideal time to document how police have been using data up to this point, as well as how they’re changing policies to align with the ruling.

Help us by spreading the word on our stretch goals. Please tweet, facebook and email this link to others (https://www.beaconreader.com/projects/the-spy-in-your-pocket).

Thanks so much, MuckRock

We hit 100%, thanks to you! Let's keep this going

June 24, 2014 at 7:01 pm

Hi there -

We wanted to say thank you for your support of this project. We hit 100% with time to spare, so we’ve decided to release some stretch goals to expand this investigation further and add some benefits for subscribers.

Here’s what we’re planning to do:


With $500 more in support: We’ll create and release an infographic/interactive map to keep track of the state-by-state findings

With $1,000: We can offer the final product — all our stories and findings — in an e-book, available to all backers.

With $1,500: We’ll be able to produce an additional story a month for The Spy in Your Pocket.

Please keep sharing the link (https://www.beaconreader.com/projects/the-spy-in-your-pocket) with others and help us expand our investigation.

Thanks for all your support, MuckRock

Only a few days left!

June 20, 2014 at 6:03 pm

We’re closing in on launching this project and now have hit more than 80% of our goal! Thanks so much for helping us to get there.

A few things to underscore the importance of launching “The Spy in Your Pocket”:

We posted a case study in why this project is needed, based on Boston Police Department’s footdragging (and ultimate clamming up) when Shawn Musgrave, MuckRock’s lead reporter for this project, submitted a records request about cell phone tracking procedures more than a year and a half ago.

This week, the ACLU released emails showing that police in Florida intentionally obscured cell phone tracking tactics from court records in 2009 – these are the same departments that US Marshals swooped in to “take back” documents about cell phone tracking following ACLU FOI requests on the subject. (The emails can be found here) Screen Shot 2014-06-20 at 9.15.59 AM.png

Please take a minute to help make The Spy in Your Pocket happen by sharing this link to friends and family on email, facebook, and twitter: https://www.beaconreader.com/projects/the-spy-in-your-pocket

We're more than 50% of the way there!

June 17, 2014 at 5:24 pm

We’ve hit 50% of our goal and there’s still about two weeks left!

We’ve been overwhelmed with the support from you so far, and all the talk going on about our project.

“The Spy in Your Pocket” was even featured on HuffPost Live! (Here’s the link, skip ahead to around 25:30: http://live.huffingtonpost.com/r/segment/free-speech-zone-alyonamink/5399ae4b78c90a20890001be )

We’re incredibly close to making this project happen and we just need to get one last big push.

If everyone would recommend just one friend or colleague to back the project, we think we’ll be able to make our goal and get our investigation off the ground.

So please, if you have a minute, forward this email or share this link to friends and family: http://www.beaconreader.com/projects/the-spy-in-your-pocket

Thanks so much for all your support!


When you back something on Beacon, you also get access to every story by every other writer.
$5per month
Monthly subscription
Monthly subscription to MuckRock’s work and to Beacon. You’ll get the opportunity to read exclusive stories from MuckRock, and every story by every writer on Beacon.
29 claimed
$10per month
Monthly subscription + podcasts
Thanks for your added support! You’ll get a monthly subscription, and a special badge on your Beacon profile. MuckRock will also take you on a tour of the past and present of spying through an exclusive CD compilation of our podcast, complete with an extra episode created just for Beacon.
7 claimed
$15per month
All the files + podcast subscription
A monthly subscription to MuckRock’s work and Beacon. You’ll also get our complete podcast collection on thumb drive, plus an exclusive export of all of MuckRock’s public archives with lots of information about how local law enforcement is keeping tabs on its cities.
3 claimed
Six-month subscription
Six-month subscription to MuckRock’s work and to Beacon. Your subscription to MuckRock expires after six months. We’ll give you five requests on MuckRock to investigate an issue you care about.
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Share with a friend
You’ll get a six-month subscription to MuckRock AND an additional six-month gift subscription to share with a friend. We’ll be in touch to send your gift as soon as this project successfully finishes.
6 claimed
$60per year
Yearlong Subscription
Support MuckRock for an entire year in one shot. This $60 subscription recurs annually.
1 claimed
Public records training
Thanks for your extraordinary support. We’ll work with you on a series of requests (up to 20) for your own investigation, including two calls (up to an hour each) to talk the best way to get the answers you’re looking for.
3 claimed
One-year subscription + dinner with MuckRock
Join the MuckRock team for our monthly team dinner in Boston, and ask us questions directly about the Spy in Your Pocket Project, FOIA, and other projects we’re working on.
4 claimed
Super patron
Thanks for your tremendous support. You’ll get an invitation to join a dinner in Boston, and you’ll get special recognition on your Beacon profile. We’ll also give you a lifetime subscription to our stories and Beacon for up to five people.
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Note: All pledges are in USD. If you'd like to pledge at a level that isn't listed here, please get in touch.


MuckRock is a collaborative news site that brings together journalists, researchers, activists and regular citizens to request, analyze and share government documents. Our stories and documents on everything from drones and embezzlement to Yelp complaints and the Wu-Tang Clan have been picked up by the New York Times, the Boston Globe, TechDirt, Gawker, MSNBC and the Huffington Post, among others.

Shawn Musgrave is the Projects Editor at MuckRock. His investigative work around law enforcement, national security and government transparency has been published in The Boston Globe, VICE/Motherboard, The Progressive, Boston.com, The Boston Phoenix and DigBoston, among others.

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