Dozens of law enforcement agencies across 33 states are quietly using new technologies to dump phone records and fix thousands of individuals' locations, identities, and activities at a time, using existing cellphone towers and phony cellphone signals, according to a new investigative report.

As other outlets revealed today how the NSA uses networked video games to track targets, USA Today detailed local cops' new cellphone-tracking tactics in an exhaustive nationwide report. Its findings:

  • One-quarter of police agencies use "tower dumps" to gather intelligence on suspects, downloading info on all the users of a particular cellphone tower in a given hour or two.
  • One-fifth of the agencies have a fancy new $400,000 mobile device called a Stingray, which mimics a cellphone tower and "tricks all nearby phones into connecting to it and feeding data to police." Most of those police forces don't have to spend money on the suitcase-sized devices; they can use federal anti-terror grants to gear up.
  • In most states, a warrant isn't needed for cops to use these technologies.

Even before today's exposé, some US municipalities expressed reservations about the scope of the new tracking technologies. The Seattle Police Department had used federal anti-terror funding to plan a "wireless mess network" capable of tracking Wi-Fi users' movements across much of the city, but halted work on the project last month after a public outcry about its potential for abuse.

Taking a page from apologists for torture and international espionage, police representatives claim the tactics are justified because they're effective.

Richland County (S.C) Sheriff Leon Lott ordered four cell-data dumps from two towers in a 2011 investigation into a rash of car break-ins near Columbia, including the theft of collection of guns and rifles from his police-issued SUV, parked at his home.

"We were looking at someone who was breaking into a lot of vehicles and was not going to stop," Lott said. "So, we had to find out as much information as we could." The sheriff's office says it has used a tower dump in at least one prior case, to help solve a murder.

Nowhere in the USA Today's story does Lott specify what murder he's talking about, or whether it—and the break-ins—ended in convictions.

[Photo credit: AP]