How Many Millions of Cellphones Are Police Watching?

by Megha Rajagopalan
ProPublica, July 11, 2012,

In response to a congressional inquiry, mobile phone companies on Monday finally disclosed just how many times they’ve handed over users’ cellphone data to the FBI and other law enforcement agencies. By the New York Times’ count, cellphone companies responded to 1.3 million demands for subscribers’ information last year from law enforcement. Many of the records, such as location data, don’t require search warrants or much court oversight.

 

Is this a great country or what?

 

While the Times calculated the number of overall requests from law enforcement, each of those requests could cover more than one person.

For instance, when seeking location information, law enforcement agencies frequently ask for “tower dumps,” which list every phone in range of a cell tower at a particular time. In cities, where cell towers are located close together, it is possible that the locations of thousands of people might be swept up in a single request.

Even outside of urban areas, ubiquitous small boxes known as microcells, which help you get cell reception in crowded places like shopping malls, also record highly precise location data. Sprint noted in its letter to Congress that each subpoena it received “typically” asked for information on multiple subscribers.

The Times’ calculation also doesn’t include specifics from T-Mobile, one of the four largest carriers, because it refused to provide them, saying “T-Mobile does not disclose the number of requests we receive from law enforcement annually.”

 

Amazing. Just a data dump.

Exactly who are police tracking?

 

It’s unclear how connected to a criminal investigation you have to be for law enforcement agencies to request your cellphone information. Stephen Smith, a magistrate judge in southern Texas who has advocated for clearer standards for location data requests, said law enforcement authorities sometimes even request information for every mobile phone a suspect has called.

“If you call and order a pizza, they might request the delivery guy’s records,” Smith said. These court orders are usually kept secret— during an ongoing investigation, police don’t want to tip off a suspect— but as a result, the vast majority of cellphone subscribers being tracked have no idea police or the FBI have their historical location information, whether they were suspected of a crime or not.

 

This is plain stupid.

 

Which agencies have been requesting the data?

 

Once again, we don’t know.

The cellphone companies didn’t say what proportion of requests was made by federal authorities and what proportion came from state and local police departments.

The American Civil Liberties Union earlier this year culled data from dozens of police departments, showing wide discrepancies in the ease with which police could obtain cellphone location data. Some police departments routinely obtained warrants; others requested swathes of records with far less court oversight. In response to a question from Congress about whether police had misused phone tracking, T-Mobile said it had identified two cases, which it referred to the FBI.

 

While much will be clutter: useless information, who knows what an agency on a vendetta might mine. And add it to your record. This is crazy.

 

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