Monday, July 9, 2012

Your Cell Phone: A 21st Century Panopticon

Cell Carriers See Uptick in Requests to Aid Surveillance:

In the first public accounting of its kind, cellphone carriers reported that they responded to a startling 1.3 million demands for subscriber information last year from law enforcement agencies seeking text messages, caller locations and other information in the course of investigations.

The cellphone carriers’ reports, which come in response to a Congressional inquiry, document an explosion in cellphone surveillance in the last five years, with the companies turning over records thousands of times a day in response to police emergencies, court orders, law enforcement subpoenas and other requests.

While the cell companies did not break down the types of law enforcement agencies collecting the data, they made clear that the widened cell surveillance cut across all levels of government — from run-of-the-mill street crimes handled by local police departments to financial crimes and intelligence investigations at the state and federal levels.

With the rising prevalence of cellphones, officials at all levels of law enforcement say cell tracking represents a powerful tool to find suspects, follow leads, identify associates and cull information on a wide range of crimes. 

“At every crime scene, there’s some type of mobile device,” said Peter Modafferi, chief of detectives for the Rockland County district attorney’s office in New York, who also works on investigative policies and operations with the International Association of Chiefs of Police. The need for the police to exploit that technology “has grown tremendously, and it’s absolutely vital,” he said in an interview. 
LOL. What a load. There are not "cellphones at every crime scene" in the U.S. Anyone who knows anything about crime and criminals will tell you: most criminals aren't signed up to cellphone plans. Most either steal cellphones (putting innocent people at risk for surveillance once the unit is found) or they use disposable cellphones (aka pre-paid). 

Criminals may not be the sharpest tools in the shed, but they're not that dumb. Obviously if you are arranging drug deals, contemplating murder for hire, or plotting a criminal scheme of some sort, you're not going to sign up with AT&T U-Verse and give them your social. 

So what's really driving this?
Because of incomplete record-keeping, the total number of law enforcement requests last year was almost certainly much higher than the 1.3 million the carriers reported to Mr. Markey. Also, the total number of people whose customer information was turned over could be several times higher than the number of requests because a single request often involves multiple callers. For instance, when a police agency asks for a cell tower “dump” for data on subscribers who were near a tower during a certain period of time, it may get back hundreds or even thousands of names.

As cell surveillance increased, warrants for wiretapping by federal and local officials — eavesdropping on conversations — declined 14 percent last year to 2,732, according to a recent report from the Administrative Office of the United States Courts

The diverging numbers suggest that law enforcement officials are shifting away from wiretaps in favor of other forms of cell tracking that are generally less legally burdensome, less time consuming and less costly. (Most carriers reported charging agencies between $50 and $75 an hour for cellphone tower “dumps.”) 
A bit of history. After the courts and congress put the lid on the Bush administration's blatant attempt at warrantless wiretapping back in the good ol' days of the War on Terror, law enforcement and intel agencies found themselves in a straight jacket: how can we continue our program of domestic surveillance and data collection on the citizenry if the courts and congress have limited our ability via warrant?

Answer: we'll just do an end-run around the courts and congress and claim every single cellphone out there, with its GPS tracking technology, text message archives, email access, etc., is now a potential investigatory tool in our war against crime. Or terror. Or drugs. Or immigration. Or whatever the war du jour might be.

And meanwhile, you and all of your information is being collected via these "massive dumps" (an appropriate phrase for what law enforcement is doing to innocent people) and archived who knows where. Any agency, from the FBI to the Podunk P.D., can access and store your information.

I know, I know, "if you ain't up to nothin', what do you have to hide?" Other than that pesky document up in D.C. called the Constitution? Not much, I guess.

Welcome to the world envisioned by Jeremy Bentham more than 225 years ago: world-wide surveillance to control the citizenry both physically and mentally. The ultimate in social control.

UPDATE: Here's a great NYT op-ed (7/15) saying we should stop calling cellphones cellphones and call them what they are: tracking devices.
In just the past few years, cellphone companies have honed their geographic technology, which has become almost pinpoint. The surveillance and privacy implications are quite simple. If someone knows exactly where you are, they probably know what you are doing. Cellular systems constantly check and record the location of all phones on their networks — and this data is particularly treasured by police departments and online advertisers. Cell companies typically retain your geographic information for a year or longer, according to data gathered by the Justice Department. 

What’s the harm? The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, ruling about the use of tracking devices by the police, noted that GPS data can reveal whether a person “is a weekly church goer, a heavy drinker, a regular at the gym, an unfaithful husband, an outpatient receiving medical treatment, an associate of particular individuals or political groups — and not just one such fact about a person, but all such facts.” Even the most gregarious of sharers might not reveal all that on Facebook.

Matt Blaze, a professor of computer and information science at the University of Pennsylvania, has written extensively about these issues and believes we are confronted with two choices: “Don’t have a cellphone or just accept that you’re living in the Panopticon.” 
Oh, and regarding my contention that criminals generally don't sign up for wireless plans with major service providers?
If you want to avoid some surveillance, the best option is to use cash for prepaid cellphones that do not require identification. The phones transmit location information to the cell carrier and keep track of the numbers you call, but they are not connected to you by name. Destroy the phone or just drop it into a trash bin, and its data cannot be tied to you. These cellphones, known as burners, are the threads that connect privacy activists, Burmese dissidents and coke dealers.  
As I said above, just as legislatures, the congress and the courts put the kibosh on warrantless wiretaps, so too must they ban law enforcement from obtaining cell phone records without probable cause and court orders. A simple request for records is nothing more than a massive invasion of privacy that must be stopped.


maneesh said...

The good folks at GotoCamera have made it a lot simpler to use a surveillance app over your phone, without demanding much of your time and money. And what's more, it's FREE! This FREE app gives you 1-click access to your cameras, archives, and settings. You can get started by creating an account (also free) at Follow the simple set-up instructions and set up your basic webcam to start monitoring your pets, family, home, business, and just about anything.

Todd Krohn said...

LOL. I'm going to leave this advertisement, er, comment by "maneesh" up. The irony is too rich, the cluelessness too unbelievable for words.

It also illustrates precisely what is wrong with this gadget-based society today.