CELL PHONE POLICING
On Monday, July 9th, the New York Times published findings from the House’s Bipartisan Congressional Privacy Caucus on how federal, state and local law enforcement agencies made approximately 1.3 million requests to wireless carriers for individual subscriber records in 2011.
Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA), co-chair of the Caucus, released the report, noting, “We cannot allow privacy protections to be swept aside with the sweeping nature of these information requests, especially for innocent consumers.” He added, “Law enforcement agencies are looking for a needle, but what are they doing with the haystack?”
A wireless customer’s personal information provided to law enforcement entities is fairly comprehensive. It includes geo-locational or GPS data, 911 call responses, text message content, billing records, wiretaps, PING location data and what are known as cell tower “dumps” or (i.e., a carrier provides all the phones numbers of cell users that connect with a discrete tower during a discrete period of time).
Rep. Markey sent requests for information covering seven basic questions to nine of the nation’s leading wireless service providers: AT&T, C Spire Wireless, Cricket Communications, MetroPCS, Sprint Nextel, T-Mobile, TracFone Wireless, U.S. Cellular and Verizon. Each of the companies reiterated that it fulfills law enforcement requests either (i) due to “exigent” circumstance (e.g., a 9-1-1 inquiry) or (ii) having received a valid warrant, etc.
The Congressional filings provided by Rep. Markey add to the growing body of evidence that policing, like the military, is becoming an increasingly high-tech operation. Like the U.S. military’s partnership with Boeing and Lockheed Martin, the police-information complex is tied to AT&T and Verizon.
The integrated federal, state and local law enforcement system could not function without its corporate shadow. And, yes, this “shadow” also includes the vast network of data tracking and aggregation companies like Google and Amazon, Visa and PayPal, Acxiom and LexisNexis. High-tech policing, like the Special Forces, doesn’t give a hoot about people’s civil liberties.
In April, the ACLU announced that it had received the records from over 200 local law enforcement agencies regarding their cell phone tracking programs. In 2011, 35 ACLU affiliate groups filed over 380 public records requests with state and local law enforcement agencies concerning tracking. Its most disturbing finding confirmed Rep. Markey’s finding: “…only a tiny minority reported consistently obtaining a warrant and demonstrating probable cause to do so.”
The ACLU found that most agencies that engaged in cell-phone tracking did not obtain a warrant, subpoena or other court order. Worse still, it found that no common, nationwide standard regarding tracking was in place or acknowledged by these different law enforcement groups.
There is a peculiar difference between what the cellphone companies “formally” report (i.e., in a legal document) and what police agencies “anonymously” admit (i.e. in a nonbinding questionnaire). It is an interesting “grey area.” The difference between the claims – i.e., carriers met legal requirements vs. agencies rarely use warrants – is, in all likelihood, the shared fiction that keeps the whole system of deceit functioning.
The ACLU demands: “It is time for Americans to take back their privacy.” So why is this issue not being addressed during the presidential campaign? Surely, it is something that could unite both the far left and the far right; for is not the loss of personal privacy an issue for all those opposed to “big government”? In all likelihood, the issue will be avoided as both Obama and Romney share a common belief in big government when it comes to the subversion of privacy rights.
The great irony of 21st century America is that as corporations gain more personhood, citizens are loosing theirs. Rep. Markey, dig deeper, let’s see how bad we’ve come in fashioning the new police information state.
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David Rosen is a writer and business-development consultant. He is author of the indie classic Off-Hollywood: The Making & Marketing of Independent Films (Grove), originally commissioned by the Sundance Institute and the Independent Feature Project. He can be reached at email@example.com. For more information, check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com and www.DavidRosenConsultants.com.