Cell Phone Monitoring by Law Enforcement Drastically Increases
In a recent decision by the Supreme Court, it is now illegal for law enforcement officers to place a GPS tracking device on any vehicle without a warrant. However, this decision opened the door to another questions: What about cell phone monitoring? In the last few years, law enforcement officers have made it a habit of going to cell phone carriers and requesting information from them regarding a suspect. By viewing cell phone records, law enforcement has been able to learn everything they need to know about their targets. But is this massive police effort becoming an invasion of privacy ?
Various cell phone carriers reported that they responded to an astonishing 1.3 million demands for subscriber information last year from different law enforcement agencies at different levels. By asking for this information, law enforcement officers have been able to gain access to call logs, text messages, and much more information about their target over the course of the investigation. And all of this is being done without any warrant of any kind.
The cell phone carriers’ reports were released in response to a Congressional inquiry about the subject of cell phone monitoring. According to the report, cell phone surveillance has drastically increased within the last five years. Cell phone companies have been turning over thousands of records a day in response to requests from law enforcement, courts, and other officials in government.
Additionally, the reports revealed that some of the requests were legally questionable even though they were coming from law enforcement. One carrier even remitted a request to the F.B.I so that they could be analyzed for regality.
The information represents the first time data have been collected nationally on the frequency of cell surveillance by law enforcement. The volume of the requests reported by the carriers — which most likely involve several million subscribers — surprised even some officials who have closely followed the growth of cell surveillance.
“I never expected it to be this massive,” said Representative Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who requested the reports from nine carriers, including AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon, in response to an article in April in The New York Times on law enforcement’s expanded use of cell tracking. Mr. Markey, who is the co-chairman of the Bipartisan Congressional Privacy Caucus, made the carriers’ responses available to The Times.
While the cell companies did not break down the types of law enforcement agencies collecting the data, they made clear that the widened cell surveillance cut across all levels of government — from run-of-the-mill street crimes handled by local police departments to financial crimes and intelligence investigations at the state and federal levels.
AT&T alone now responds to an average of more than 700 requests a day, with about 230 of them regarded as emergencies that do not require the normal court orders and subpoena. That is roughly triple the number it fielded in 2007, the company said. Law enforcement requests of all kinds have been rising among the other carriers as well, with annual increases of between 12 percent and 16 percent in the last five years. Sprint, which did not break down its figures in as much detail as other carriers, led all companies last year in reporting what amounted to at least 1,500 data requests on average a day.
With the rapid expansion of cell surveillance have come rising concerns — including among carriers — about what legal safeguards are in place to balance law enforcement agencies’ needs for quick data against the privacy rights of consumers.