Cell phone trackingFortytwotimesBack in 2012, Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) asked the telephone companies to supply records of the number of times law enforcement asked for their customers cell phone data. It turns out that the wireless surveillance of Americans is quite extensive. The telcos revealed that they had received 1.3 million requests for wireless data from federal, state, and local law enforcement in 2011.

This year, the telcos reported to Markey that they received 1.1 million requests for cell phone data from law enforcement in 2012. The New York Times notes that this figure is not comparable to the 2011 numbers because Sprint declined to answer all of the senator's queries. In a press release from his office, Sen. Markey declared:

"As law enforcement uses new technology to protect the public from harm, we also must protect the information of innocent Americans from misuse. We need a 4th amendment for the 21st century. Disclosure of personal information from wireless devices raises significant legal and privacy concerns, particularly for innocent consumers."

The senator further noted: 

"If the police want to know where you are, we should know why. When law enforcement access location information, it as sensitive and personal as searching an individual’s home and should be treated commensurately."

The Senator plans to introduce legislation that would curb law enforcement cell phone surveillance: The legislation would...

  • Require regular disclosures from law enforcement on the nature and volume of requests.
  • Curb bulk data information requests such as cell tower dumps that capture information on a large group of mobile phone users at a particular period of time, and require that any request be more narrowly tailored, when possible.  
  • Require, in the case of emergency circumstances, a signed, sworn statement from law enforcement authorities after receipt of information from a carrier that justifies the need for the emergency access. 
  • Mandate creation of rules by the Federal Communications Commission to limit how long wireless carriers can retain consumers’ personal information.  Right now, no such standards exist.
  • Require location tracking authorization only with a warrant when there is probable cause to believe it will uncover evidence of a crime. This is the traditional standard for police to search individual homes.

In my January 2013 article,"Your Cell Phone is Spying on You," I argued:

Cultivating and maintaining a society of free and responsible individuals is impossible under the permanent Panoptic gaze of the government. Ubiquitous surveillance becomes indistinguishable from totalitarianism. “The ultimate check on government as a whole is its inability to know everything about those it governs,” Keizer writes in Privacy. In other words, state ignorance is the citizenry’s bliss. 

Probable cause warrants should be the least requirement for giving the police the power to spy on individual citizens.

Go here for the telco reports sent to Markey.