A Congressional inquiry looking into cell phone surveillance found that U.S. law enforcement made a gobsmacking 1.3 million+ requests for data from wireless carriers last year, says The New York Times.
That alone looks huge, but when you consider that one request often covers multiple callers, the number of subscribers affected could actually be much, much more. If a police investigation requires info, such as who was near a particular cell tower at a particular time, the resulting data dump could yield hundreds or thousands of names.
Not that all requests are fulfilled. T-Mobile cited two instances when police requests were considered “inappropriate” and kicked over to the FBI. But that doesn’t reflect the majority of cases, and given the number of inquiries made, there’s one thing for sure: There’s an awful lot of cell surveilling going on.
On average, AT&T gets 700 or so requests daily, which is about three times what it fielded five years ago. When it’s a matter of emergency, like location info on a kidnapped victim or suicidal person, the requests understandably don’t require a court order. That might explain why as much as a third of the inquiries to the carrier is made up of urgent requests. (Wonder what the other two-thirds are.) Sprint gets hit up over twice as much, at almost 1,500 requests each day.
So who’s paying for all this surveillance? We are. The carriers pass the expense of all this tracking on to the subscribers via fees, to the tune of billions of dollars. In other words, we’re paying for the ability of authorities to parse our call data and texts.
Mobile data requests have become rather commonplace in law enforcement now, but the rules governing it don’t seem to be ironed-out yet. What is considered an emergency, versus merely time-sensitive? What hoops should the police jump through before receiving subscriber information? (Or should they jump through any hoops at all?) Is this determined federally or locally? Or do the carriers get to determine? And will the subscribers be informed that their data was made available to the police? Does the information get entered into some sort of police dossier on citizens?
And that’s not even the real nitty gritty: What kind of data is being turned over? Is it strictly general location info? Actual texts of SMS messages? And where is this data being kept? How long will it be stored? How secure is it?
This is only the tip of the iceberg. Even though the police have come to rely on this tactic as a key part of their investigations, it seems that there’s still a lot that hasn’t been addressed yet, at least not comprehensively.
What do you think of approach? Is it a serious breach of privacy? Does it upset you that wireless customers are paying for this? Or do you feel that the public should do whatever it takes to ensure that law enforcement remains effective, even if it means compromising some individual rights? Tell us what you think in the comments.