The Tracking Device in Your Pocket

Eric Lichtblau has a story summarizing what Ed Markey discovered after he asked cellphone companies to tell him how many law enforcement requests they respond to every year. And while some of the companies (AT&T and Cricket, at least) claim the numbers are exploding because their subscriber base is too, the numbers are still troubling.

In the first public accounting of its kind, cellphone carriers reported that they responded to a startling 1.3 million demands for subscriber information last year from law enforcement agencies seeking text messages, caller locations and other information in the course of investigations.

The cellphone carriers’ reports, which come in response to a Congressional inquiry, document an explosion in cellphone surveillance in the last five years, with the companies turning over records thousands of times a day in response to police emergencies, court orders, law enforcement subpoenas and other requests.

The reports are all here–I’ll do a followup once I’ve read them. In the meantime, consider this a working thread if you read the reports.

12 replies
  1. sOLbus says:

    I think it important to add that it’s not just government agencies that seem to have the monopoly on this. Having swapped the factory android OS for one of those out in the developer community, I began having all kinds of problems with my registered account, and subsequently, my wireless home connection, where it seemed my contact book, password and key were pulled from the smartphone. I had to wonder, as well, if “open source” tools used by the powers that be mean to them all is fair game; if it can be had out in the wild by out in the wild hack tools, that to them it means that the surveillance they perform doesn’t have to be on the official books, at all. Of course, we know some of the other implications of that, given the HB Gary, Murdoch, and other controversies. In other words, I would not be suprised if an equal danger is these private developers and (sub)contractors? Particularly defense and image management types? IT staff at major newspapers or political goons?

  2. Phil Perspective says:

    Do the phone companies make the cops, or whomever, have a warrant before turning over the data? Does this include things like divorce proceedings? Or just supposed crimes? And doesn’t the NSA likely have all this data anyway?

  3. sOLbus says:

    And websites? There’s many I won’t visit anymore, even with hamachi and the like, due to the rather obvious tracking, dns issues, facebook connects, (god why would anybody in their right mind give commenting interface to FACEBOOK???)

    Anyway, we know privacy is a human right, should be a rule of law- enforceable right, I think these developments are the single most dehumanizing and erosive breach of humanity’s right to be a whole person imaginable, as it indeed could be used, as others point out, to what amounts to a kind of quiet mass social murder.

  4. posaune says:

    What are the differences in surveillance standards between a landline, a cell phone, internet, or twitter? Any?

  5. emptywheel says:

    @posaune: Not really a difference, it’s just that cells will give you more data, like geolocation. Also, the govt will get tower dumps–the numbers of everyone within a cell at a particular time–which of course sucks everyone in a particular area into the surveillance.

  6. lysias says:

    German police arrested the Berlin academic sociologist Andrej Holm because he had not taken his cellphone to a couple of meetings that they regarded as suspicious. (Fortunately, the authorities were eventually forced to drop the charges — of terrorism.)

  7. HotFlash says:

    I think we need to assume/understand that They are watching us all the time.

    I have taken a few steps to put me back one degree, but if they want to find me, I am sure they can (bank, phone bill, electricity bill, EBay, PayPal, yada…) But, they won’t have me/my emails/my calendar/my contact list in from of them all the time. Does anyone else remember the old BC cartoon? One ant is telling another ant that he has figured out how to deal with humans: “I bite them on the arm hairs.”

  8. lefty665 says:

    @emptywheel: “Not really a difference… cells give you more data”.

    Amen, and with cells there is extra never any expectation of privacy.

    Cell phones are gussied up radio transmitters and receivers (rf). Once something is transmitted, anyone with a receiver can listen to it.

    More than a million requests to the telecoms for information don’t begin to touch the scope of what is available to those with the ability to listen to cell traffic.

    NSA’s current capabilities are secret, so it is difficult to know just what “national technical means” exist here in the wonderful world of the future. However, it seems likely that NSA has had close to 100% of cell traffic since well before 911.

    To get a sense of the potential, we can look back at what they have historically been able to do and extrapolate forward. For example, the prior generation of rf communications, simple satellite long distance links, might provide insight into how current capabilities with cell signals have evolved. NSA put dishes close to the telecom satellite links. They received calls right along with the folks who were paying for them. Is there any reason to believe those capabilities have not advanced in parallel with the telecom technology over the last 40 years?

    But wait, there’s more, just like on late night TV. What happens if one attracts individual attention, beyond routine, intrusive mass screening of every word and keystroke? It is reasonable to expect connected devices, cell, land line, computer and pad can be turned on to function as bugs. Beef Hollow Rd. is BIG, they are going to fill it with something… sigh.

    Marcy, I have to allow Googleapis to preview a post. Any idea how much data that exposes?

  9. P J Evans says:

    Don’t keep my contact list in the phone. It’s on paper.
    Don’t have EBay, don’t have PayPal (I don’t trust them any father than I would trust FB).
    Don’t have wireless anything.
    Yeah, they can track me – but they won’t get much from it.

  10. ondelette says:

    @Phil Perspective:

    They are supposed to. Under CALEA, if they don’t, they can be fined by the call for everything they turn over, and they know it. Which is why the invoking of “emergency” and the requests for things other than content.

    But it’s also possible that they cops are looking for other things and that some of this stuff is just cops being stupid about technology. Tower dumps could also sometimes be cops looking for eye witnesses who might have photographed something. The perfectly legal way to do that would be to put out an announcement asking for the same, like they always used to.

    And then there’s the problem that none of this reporting (but possibly the information to Markey et al.) tells us what the cell phone carriers or manufacturers are turning over for data, so none of it is telling us what they are gathering for data. With Carrier IQ installed and turned on, the answer could be “everything”. Every keystroke, every download, every app, every email, every phone call, every power up and power down, all logins and logouts, all GPS. But hey, private enterprise isn’t breaking the law surveilling you, only the gubmint. You signed a contract. And even if you didn’t, they can send you a click contract that changes it so you did, and 99 out of a hundred will click it without understanding it. Or your contract contains a clause allowing them to change it without consulting you. Courtesy of the wonderful world of civil rights law circa 1995 and hence.

    And since the entire economy is now run on the back of processing your life for the advertising industry, even Erich Mielke never had as much data to work with about “the lives of others.”

    The intel and law enforcement people are only buying from private enterprise what has already been collected for the purposes of making you consume. The police state you are so worried about has become a mere side effect of the maniacal drive toward creating the perfectly consumptive human, a variation on a theme of l’oie de fois gras.

  11. sOLbus says:


    yikes, that’s a big question
    I guess like the constitutional amend that Katrina vanden Heuvel and friends describe over at The Nation regarding Citizen’s United, a like amend should be constructed clearly articulating privacy as a bedrock liberty informed by a reconstitution of the Church Committee with a particularly heavy emphasis on investigating the military’s past and present domestic operations, as well. The previous investigation was mostly a failure, really, as they stopped short. Then, we also have to demand our legislature to do a better job of screening out political idealogues from the Supreme Court and ditto the law schools; (there’s no way Yoo should have a teaching position, it makes that school look completely compromised politically, certainly the antithesis of ethically teaching impartiality) then maybe give the court term limits during this polarized age until they can be perceived as being more apolitical and independent in the working sense. But in the end, the majority public simply has to understand and act on the issues. Glen G. points out how this is impaired by the inability to exercise speech without fearing retribution, labeling, targeting. So it is really a moral issue: one’s personal integrity and well-being as invested in the general welfare of the Republic despite risk. That is what is Virtue.

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