Law Enforcement’s Use of Commercial Phone Data Stirs Surveillance Fight

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In January 2020, a 14-year-old girl was reported missing from her home in Missouri and classified as a runaway by local police. Her phone had been wiped of data and left behind, leaving few clues about her whereabouts.

Several hundred miles away in Fayetteville, Ark., a local prosecutor named Kevin Metcalf heard about the teenager through his professional network and suspected she might have been abducted or lured into leaving. Using widely available commercial data, he pursued that hunch in a way that is now in the sights of privacy advocates and lawmakers from both parties.

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