The growing use of cell phone tracking by police to solve crimes and pursue suspects has become increasingly common – and controversial. Officers say tracing phones using GPS is a vital tool during emergencies like child abductions and suicide calls, as well to solve drug cases and murders. According to the Times piece, one police training manual describes cell phones as “the virtual biographer of our daily activities,” i.e. providing a “hunting ground for learning contacts and travels.”

No surprise there, though civil liberty activists say the practice is concerning and potentially violates constitutional rights, particularly if used without judicial orders (From the NYT story: ‘While many departments require warrants to use phone tracking in nonemergencies, others claim broad discretion to get the records on their own, according to 5,500 pages of internal records obtained by the American Civil Liberties Union from 205 police departments nationwide.”)

Tracing can also be extremely handy – and much less controversial — when one loses a phone.  A friend of ours recently left her iPhone4 on a bus. Since she didn’t have insurance and didn’t want to shell out $650 for a new one or even $300 for a used cell phone, she watched via the Track My Phone app as her missing device traversed the city. Within a few days, she called police for a citizen assist, arrived at the house where her phone appeared to be and had an officer retrieve it for her. The man who had her iPhone had apparently told the officers he’d paid $50 for it. “I knew it was too good to be true,” the cop said the man told him.  Indeed. And at times like that, phone tracing in and of itself seems too good to be true.