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.
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.”)
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.
Oh, and regarding my contention that criminals generally don't sign up for wireless plans with major service providers?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.”
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.