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.



Cotopaxi Cell Tower

This project is on again! The AllTel contract never went anywhere and everything they did has expired. Then the school got word that AT&T had transferred rights for the cell tower to Mercury Towers of Frisco, TX. This site is on school property overlooking the “city” of Cotopaxi (pop. 47).

The school campus is at upper left; the county road wanders through it. The town is across the bottom with the commercial district south of the river. Southwest of the school is a faint blue “T” which marks where the new cell tower will be.

The green circle is approximately where the tower will be. The original permit called for an eighty foot tower but Mercury wants to make it a 100′ tower if the county will approve it. I think so they can hang more antennas on it later! Any carrier can use the tower.

Looking east (or downcanyon), the power source is visible through the trees at bottom. On the next ridge, the tall white pole is a radio mast for the Sheriff’s office and the CDOT facility on the other side of the ridge.

This is the back of the school; the closest building is a utility building and the field to the right is the leach field for our septic system.

The school will get a lease payment for the plot of land and Cotopaxi will get cell service (AT&T) for the first time!

My Cell Phone Gently Beeps

My apologies to George Harrison for the title of this post.

Anyway, my cell phone was acting oddly this last week. Twice in the wee hours of the morning (2:39 and 2:40) I would wake to see my phone shining brightly for no apparent reason. And I had no reason to be awake then, either! There was no incoming text or call. Maybe my phone went out to play every morning and I just happened to wake up and catch it!

But the third time I wasn’t asleep at 11:20 when I heard a soft “beeep” and it came to life. And shortly went back to sleep! I lay there thinking who might be browsing my cell files: Verizon? Homeland Security? The FBI? A hacker?

The next day I waded through all the menus on the thing to see what might be happening. I found software updates turned on and no way to turn any associated alert sound off. I left it on and was relieved that Verizon was looking out for me! 🙂

I can’t tell any difference in how my phone works so whatever they fixed is invisible. And I haven’t had anymore “midnight flashes” either. I assume it is perfect now!

My New Cell Phone

I got my new cell phone from Verizon.

The new phone on the left along with the cable and plug came in the box above. I guess they didn’t want it getting claustrophobic. 🙂 It looks very like my old phone (right) but the keyboard is more like Donna’s LG unit.

I am in the process of switching to the new one. I had several texts I have to transfer to my computer. This is a fetish of mine to preserve parts of my history. I have to do this by typing the texts into an e-mail to myself. I only have 38 to go!

I have saved my address book. I have make sure there are no pictures I want to save. Then I activate! My old number magically transfers to the new phone.

My New Phone

I have ordered a new cell phone from Verizon. They don’t make shopping easy! I ended up with three choices: a reconditioned Blackberry 9330, an LG Accolade, and a Samsung Gusto. I debated about the 9330; it was free and Wi-fi capable. Then I thought about me using that little screen for web surfing! That wasn’t gonna work! My experiences with the Kindle told me that. So, even tho most of my cyberfriends have smartphones, I would stick with dumb ones. And i do know what happens when ya drop one of those.

So that left the flip phones. I spent a lot of time deciding and chose the Samsung Gusto which is very similar to the phone I have now. So I went through all the steps to purchase it, clicked on purchase and was told it wasn’t available!! And this is the phone Verizon recommended for me! Dufuses.

So I am ending up with the LG Accolade. I have had an LG phone before with TracFone and liked the unit (not the company!). Donna’s phone is an LG similar to my new one. I hope we can tell them apart! Lol.

One thing I did different this time after hearing the horror stories about damaged phones and my own fear of accidentally dropping mine in a toilet when I flush (This phobia comes from my years as a waste water plant operator!), I bought insurance!

I will have the same number but am dreading transferring the saved numbers over. Verizon is supposed to make that easy. I will see.

Update already: While I was writing this, Verizon sent me a confirmation of shipment. They don’t want me changing my mind, obviously! FedEx should get it here the 9th.

The AT&T Cell Tower

We barely have cell service up here. There is one place where I can carry on a cell conversation: lying in bed with my head on my pillow! Texting is hit or miss. I just sent the same message twice when the first try didn’t work. And the “hot spots” are not even the same from day to day.

So I was excited when this appeared on top of a small mountain nearby!

This is in a development and they had to enlarge and improve the existing “roads”! This was started by AllTel and now AT&T owns it. I have been stopping by the sales office in Cañon to inquire if it is online. The answer was always “No.”. And I always ask the stupid question, “When will it be on?” and they never knew. But this time the answer was different: maybe never!

The young woman told me they were “evaluating all the sites in the state” and may abandon this one. If this one which has exposure up here PLUS all down the Wet Mountain Valley on the other side is in jeopardy, the one in Cotopaxi is toast. Obviously AT&T is still “the phone company” and doesn’t have to care. Now those ads on TV about bringing service to the hicks is annoying BS.

It is fully assembled, physically, but the electronics are lacking. And a connection to the rest of the world! I was gonna try an AT&T phone when it came on but not now. My Verizon contract expired a couple of months ago and I have been month-to-month since. With urgings from them to pick a phone!

Now I will. But that is turning out to be harder than I realized!