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How Many Millions of Cellphones Are Police Watching?

Megha Rajagopalan
ProPublica / News Report
Published: Thursday 12 July 2012
“Both police and cell service providers had long resisted releasing details on the scope of cellphone surveillance. But the new disclosures from cellphone companies still leave a slew of unanswered questions.”
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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.

Both police and cell service providers had long resisted releasing details on the scope of cellphone surveillance. But the new disclosures from cellphone companies still leave a slew of unanswered questions. Here’s what we have yet to learn.

So more than a million people had their cellphone records picked up law enforcement surveillance?

Actually, it’s probably far more than that, but we can’t know for sure.

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.”

When do police have the right to snoop on your location data?

The law isn’t settled yet, but location information is generally far easier for police to get than a warrant for a wiretap.

A warrant is generally required for police to place a wiretap or track phones in real time, meaning police must have proof they have probable cause that the search will reveal evidence of a crime. But for police to get location data, many courts hold that police need only show that the data would contain “specific and articulable facts” related to a case.

Privacy activists have long held that requests for location data require a search warrant to be constitutional. They say police are essentially using cellphones as tracking devices. But the Supreme Court hasn’t ruled on the issue, and Congress has yet to pass a law addressing it.

Police obtain court orders for basic subscriber information so frequently that some mobile phone companies have established websites— here’s one— with forms that police can fill out in minutes.

The Obama Administration’s Department of Justice has said mobile phone users have “no reasonable expectation of privacy.”

For their part, cellphone companies have supported congressional efforts to make it tougher for police to get location records. An industry representative spoke at House hearing in favor of a bill that would require law enforcement agencies to obtain a warrant before demanding mobile phone users’ location information.

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.

What sorts of investigations do the requests serve?

It’s not clear.

Police departments have frequently argued that requiring a warrant to obtain cellphone location information would cripple investigations into violent crimes like kidnapping. But it’s unknown what proportion of law enforcement requests actually relate to these types of serious crimes.

“If 80 percent are for drug cases or robberies and two percent are for child sexual predators, it would help if you could put a number on those things,” Smith said. “We’d be in a better position to legislate.”

So what data did police request the most?

That’s also unclear.

Most of the companies didn’t release an exact breakdown of police requests. So we don’t know how many of the requests were for location data and how many were for call records, billing information or other data.

Some of the overall numbers leave questions too. Sprint has about half the subscriber base of Verizon and AT&T. But it reported that it received about 500,000 requests overall from law enforcement last year. That far outpaces its competitors.

We spoke to Sprint spokeswoman Stephanie Vinge Walsh who said that Sprint counted each person whose data is sucked up via a police request. It’s not clear exactly how the other companies totaled the requests they handled.

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.

What does law enforcement do with the data after it’s collected?

It depends on who is requesting it.

As Smith, the Texas magistrate judge, pointed out in a recent paper, any information that’s not used as evidence in court is unlikely to become public. Cellphone companies’data retention policies vary widely, and the duration of time law enforcement hangs on to the data it obtains is unknown.

ABOUT Megha Rajagopalan

Megha Rajagopalan reports on digital privacy, security and freedom. She was a 2011 Fulbright fellow in Beijing where she conducted research on the Chinese news media, and was previously a research fellow at the New America Foundation, a nonpartisan public policy institute in Washington, D.C. She has reported from China, Burma and North Korea, among other places, and has contributed to TIME Asia, The Wall Street Journal,, Foreign Policy, The Christian Science Monitor and other publications. She speaks Mandarin Chinese.

Metadata, such as your

Metadata, such as your position, should require a search warrant to obtain. It's no different than if the police attached a tracking device under your car.

Some of the advice given by "Joe the Voter" is not valid. As soon as you call someone being monitored by law enforcement using your dollar-store phone, your phone will be identified and could then be monitored. VPN offers protection but could be decoded using sophisticated equipment. Turning the phone off is best, and airplane mode next (unless law enforcement uploaded a virus to your phone to keep the GPS and transmitter on, and the phone on but the screen blank).

People can take steps to

People can take steps to provide themselves with some privacy. While the phone company knows about where you are because of which towers your signal reaches they don't have to know what sites you visit on a smart phone. You can use a VPN service on most smart phones just as you can to hide your internet traffic. Turn off your GPS when not needed. That reduces the accuracy of your location to simple triangulation assuming you are between several towers.

If you are not talking or expecting a call turn you phone off or put it in airplane mode so you can still play a game.

I have an article on internet security and VPN here and these same VPN services can be installed on your cell phone.

Still want more privacy? Buy a cheap cell phone from a dollar store with cash. You never have to identify who you are to purchase those so while your location my be known, no one knows who you are.

George Orwell had it RIGHT in

George Orwell had it RIGHT in his book "1984" Big Brother is watching us all.

Let's add one more seizure of

Let's add one more seizure of power by the circling proto police state to this one. The executive branch under Obama has just taken control of all air wave and electronic communication forms for their sole use and communication with the public if they deem necessary. Of course this is all in the name of ensuring public safety in a time of emergency. Too much in the way of safety concerns at the discretion of nebulous institutions of governmental authority means yet less freedom for the citizenry to respond to attack by an arbitrary executive order. The squeeze is continuing on the emerging people's revolt...

Norman Allen's picture

Everything we do is watched!

Everything we do is watched! They will bother you if you can be bothered when you become a bother to the 1%!

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