Big Brother Works Both Sides of the Atlantic

I was rather surprised that there seemed to be more outrage Sunday about the UK’s announced plan to roll out the same ability to monitor everyone’s online activity that the US set up after 9/11 then over Eric Lichtblau’s report–based on the ACLU’s FOIA efforts–revealing that cops all over the country are using our smart phones to spy on us.

At least from the published reports, it sounds like the Brits want to be able to do through GCHQ what NSA and FBI have been doing with hoovered telecom records for years.

A new law – which may be announced in the forthcoming Queen’s Speech in May – would not allow GCHQ to access the content of emails, calls or messages without a warrant.

But it would enable intelligence officers to identify who an individual or group is in contact with, how often and for how long. They would also be able to see which websites someone had visited.


“What this is talking about doing is not focusing on terrorists or criminals, it’s absolutely everybody’s emails, phone calls, web access…” he told the BBC.

“All that’s got to be recorded for two years and the government will be able to get at it with no by your leave from anybody.”

He said that until now anyone wishing to monitor communications had been required to gain permission from a magistrate.

Plus, such plans will likely face more of a hurdle in Parliament than such schemes to expand surveillance face in Congress.

Meanwhile, the materials collected from all over the country via ACLU’s state affiliates show that local police are using some of the same approaches–things like communities of interest–that our massive data collection supports.

And as ACLU’s summary makes clear that not just the Feds using Secret PATRIOT, but local cops, are using cell phones to track people with no warrants.

Most law enforcement agencies do not obtain a warrant to track cell phones, but some do, and the legal standards used vary widely. Some police departments protect privacy by obtaining a warrant based upon probable cause when tracking cell phones. For example, police in the County of Hawaii, Wichita, and Lexington, Ky. demonstrate probable cause and obtain a warrant when tracking cell phones. If these police departments can protect both public safety and privacy by meeting the warrant and probable cause requirements, then surely other agencies can as well.

Unfortunately, other departments do not always demonstrate probable cause and obtain a warrant when tracking cell phones. For example, police in Lincoln, Neb. obtain even GPS location data, which is more precise than cell tower location information, on telephones without demonstrating probable cause. Police in Wilson County, N.C. obtain historical cell tracking data where it is “relevant and material” to an ongoing investigation, a standard lower than probable cause.

Police use various methods to track cell phones. Most commonly, law enforcement agencies obtain cell phone records about one person from a cell phone carrier. However, some police departments, like in Gilbert, Ariz., have purchased their own cell tracking technology.

Sometimes, law enforcement agencies obtain all of the cell phone numbers at a particular location at a particular time. For example, a law enforcement agent in Tucson, Ariz. prepared a memo for fellow officers explaining how to obtain this data. And records from Cary, N.C. include a request for all phones that utilized particular cell phone towers.

Of course, all this cell phone tracking was–to some degree–available via FOIA. The Feds have far greater financial resources to do this tracking, and (in the counterterrorism realm) they do it in secret.

And if the response is any indication, folks care more about the Brits matching our surveillance than the way even our local cops have turned our cell phones into tracking devices.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

11 replies
  1. MadDog says:

    I’m less surprised by the lack of reaction to local and state law enforcement GPS tracking citizens without warrants.

    My fellow citizens seem unable to be roused out of their zombie-like and fear-induced grazing.

    Yes, every now and then the sheep look up, a wary eye cast this way and that way for the telltale signs of the ever-present wolfpack who herd our lives, but in the end the sheep return to the grass beneath their feet knowing full well that it’s only a matter of time before it’s their day to become lamb chops.

  2. MadDog says:

    And btw, are my favorite buttons (link, blockquote, etc.) gone for good? If so, I hope there will a small service for those of us who held them dear.

  3. Frank33 says:

    This is the Homeland Security Model. An informer on every street. Why should the Government of Pakistan stop terrorism? They receive massive US taxpayer money for the terror.

    “Karachi can never become a control center for al-Qaeda,” one high-ranking ISI officer said. “We have informers on every street. Our total concentration is on Karachi, followed by Lahore, Faisalabad, and Peshawar, Quetta. That vendor on the street? He can be working for us. We are covering every street, every nook and corner. Let me tell you, you people have the habit of over-exaggerating the importance of these people. This KSM, I don’t care a hoot about him. Their mobility has been brought to zero. We have this highly sophisticated electronic gadgetry, we have the [National] Crisis Management Cell center, we have PISCES [the U.S.-originated Personal Identification Secure Comparison and Evaluation System] … and can tell anybody going in and out.” The obvious question, of course, was that if the ISI had Pakistan so well covered, how had KSM been allowed to build the al-Qaeda network there before September 11 in the first place, and then rebuild it once again afterward?

  4. MadDog says:

    @emptywheel: I was simply aghast at reading that article.

    We all know that conservatives in general have jumped the shark into crazyland, but that now includes those 5 knuckleheads on the Supreme Court?

    Here’s a suggestion. Let’s pass a law that requires a strip search before entering the Supreme Court building.

    Ok, Fat Tony, bend over and spread those cheeks.

  5. jerryy says:

    @emptywheel: In spite of the rending of garments vs. cheerleading concerning judicial activism / restraint currently going on in other threads, this ruling is the very dangerous judicial action.

  6. klynn says:


    You should experiment with this idea… See what happens, while you are out and about, when you pull your battery from your cell phone.

    I had a fun result.

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