You’ll never hear a clicking sound like those people in old movies who suspected their phone was being tapped. But there’s a good chance that someone may be listening in on your calls nonetheless. “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,” reports The New York Times.
The go on to note, “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.”
This news comes on the heels of an ACLU report released in March that summarized information obtained from public records requests to hundreds of police departments around the country. The organization stated that, “Many of the approximately 200 law enforcement agencies that responded said they track cell phones without a warrant.”
If that sounds a bit off-putting, the details are even worse: The ACLA said, “In Wilson County, N.C., police obtain cell phone tracking data where it is ‘relevant and material’ to an ongoing investigation–a standard much lower than probable cause. Police in Lincoln, Neb., without demonstrating probable cause, obtain even GPS location data, which is more precise than cell tower location information. In Tucson, Ariz., police sometimes obtain cell phones numbers for all of the phones at a particular location at a certain time (this practice is known as a ‘tower dump’).”
And the dumping has been going on for awhile now. Back in 2006, USA Today reported that, “The National Security Agency has been secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by AT&T, Verizon and BellSouth . . . The NSA program reaches into homes and businesses across the nation by amassing information about the calls of ordinary Americans — most of whom aren't suspected of any crime . . . For the customers of these companies, it means that the government has detailed records of calls they made—across town or across the country—to family members, co-workers, business contacts and others.”
Four years later, The Daily Beast echoed these same thoughts noting ”cell-phone tracking is among the more unsettling forms of government surveillance, conjuring up Orwellian images of Big Brother secretly following your movements through the small device in your pocket. How many of the owners of the country's 277 million cell phones even know that companies like AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint can track their devices in real time?”
But before you start blaming the government for all this intrusiveness, you may also want to look toward their somewhat willing partners. Earlier this year, The New York Times said that surveillance for law enforcement, “has become big business for cellphone companies, too, with a handful of carriers marketing a catalog of ‘surveillance fees’ to police departments to determine a suspect’s location, trace phone calls and texts or provide other services. Some departments log dozens of traces a month for both emergencies and routine investigations.”
Where this will all end, if there is an end in sight, is anyone’s guess. In January, the Supreme Court unanimously voted to restrict the police’s ability to use a GPS device to track criminal suspects. According to The Washington Post, “The court rejected the government’s view that long-term surveillance of a suspect by GPS tracking is no different than traditional, low-tech forms of monitoring. But its decision was nuanced and incremental, leaving open the larger questions of how government may use the information generated by modern technology for surveillance purposes.”
And right now, that opening is looking pretty huge.
How do you feel about cellphone surveillance?
Lawrence Karol is a freelance writer and editor who lives in New York City in a mid-century-modern-inspired apartment with his dog, Mike. He is a former Gourmet editor, who enjoys writing about design, food, and lots of other stuff. @WriteEditDream | Email Lawrence