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U.S. surveillance of citizens explodes with a wealth of records requests

U.S. law enforcement has moved over the last few years to exponentially expand its surveillance of citizen cell phone records, in a move that has privacy advocates and industry figures alike alarmed.

I. American Spying on Citizens Hits Record High 

In 2011 local, state, and federal agents dealt with approximately 10 million reports of crimes [source].  During their investigations they filed 1.3 million information requests, or approximately 1 request per every 10 crimes.  Commonly requested information included location information and text message logs.

The 1.3 million-request metric is likely understated due to incomplete record keeping.  Furthermore, a single request can involve multiple callers, so as many as 1 in every 100 Americans may have been targeted with a surveillance demand.

Cellular carriers voiced frustrations about the U.S. police state's soaring data requests in a response to a Congressional probe.  In their response, they point to a number of requests they considered inappropriate in that they seemed geared at harassment of citizens or other alarming aims.

Rep. Edward J. Markey (D., Mass.), chairman of the Bipartisan Congressional Privacy Caucus was shocked at the number of requests.  He comments, "I never expected it to be this massive.

II. Police: Safety Worth the Cost of Liberties, Taxpayer Dollars

Carriers report that requests have risen at a pace of approximately 12 to 16 percent per year.  AT&T, Inc. (T) was particularly hard hit, seeing requests triple between 2007 and 2012.  It currently handles around 700 requests per day, with roughly a third of them (230 per day) being classified as "emergency".

Telecoms do receive some rewards for compliance.  Reports peg the cost of a wiretap at over $1,000, and the telecoms also receive immunity from citizen lawsuits by cooperating with government's spying efforts in some instances.

Carriers say standard requests, which constitute about two-thirds of the data grabs are typically accompanied by a search warrant, a court order, or a formal subpoena.  However, the emergency requests are often less formal, raising substantial danger for abuse.

Some smaller carriers were left footing the bill for government spying, according to the report, despite requests to receive reimbursement.  Small carrier Cricket Communications, Inc. was among those who said it lost money complying with information demands.

U.S. Police
U.S. police and law enforcement officials, shown here beating down the pesky populace, say safety trumps civil liberties when it comes to data grabs. [Image Source: The Washington Post]

On the other hand, when the government does pay, taxpayers are left footing the bill.  Carriers charge $50 to $75 USD per hour for tower dumps.  

Many law enforcement officials, according to a piece in The New York Times are pleased with essentially be able to monitor citizens' locations at all times, something they say is a necessary sacrifice of liberty in the name of fighting crime.

Others are not so convince.  Reports of broad abuse of National Security Letters (NSL) -- a commonly used tool by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation -- found massive abuse of the warrantless data grabs.  The American Civil Liberties Union has been battling FBI lawyers to make the process more transparent.  The FBI has fought these demands, again arguing that the need for safety outweighs the need to preserve civil liberties.

Source: The New York Times



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need more data
By kleinma on 7/9/2012 3:04:10 PM , Rating: 4
I really don't care how many requests are made. I want to know how many requests are made that turn out to be for malicious purposes, self gain, abuse of the system, etc..

If 1.3 million info requests on cell phones are made, and 1,299,999 helped resolve a missing persons case, catch a serial killer, or stop a terrorist, then sounds like the whole thing is working just fine.

Without actual data on the results of the information that was given under these requests, there is really no way to have an opinion on this.

If someone goes missing, and that someone is reported missing by loved ones, and they had a cell phone, the police submit one of these types of requests. That is not spying.

Is there any actual data on the specifics of the requests or how they were used and how many crimes or cases they resolved by doing so?




RE: need more data
By Etsp on 7/9/2012 3:29:48 PM , Rating: 3
I agree with you there. That 1.3 million requests were made is meaningless without any other metric. I'm willing to bet more than half of those requests were related to other requests (part of the same case against someone).

However, what they did say was that 1 in 3 requests were emergency requests that did not necessarily have warrants or other formal documentation or oversight. I am concerned about that, and I fully believe that these types of requests need to be audited heavily (after the fact) for abuse.


RE: need more data
By kleinma on 7/9/2012 3:51:27 PM , Rating: 2
Sure, and like I said (and you concurred with) we need real data on what the requests are being used for, and what information is being granted.

If 1 in 3 are emergency requests, that is around 433k emergency requests. So out of that count, how many are requests for tower/gps info on a missing person, at the request (or pleas) of the family. How many are to prevent an imminent threat (foreign or domestic) and how many are shady operations that the general public would actually have a problem with?


RE: need more data
By BZDTemp on 7/10/2012 7:58:28 AM , Rating: 1
I don't need another metric apart from considering the population size when looking at that number. The 1.3 million number makes it pretty clear something is very wrong.

If we start thinking that anybody innocent should be fine with wire taps and what not then that put us a big step close to 1984!


RE: need more data
By Adonlude on 7/11/2012 11:07:59 AM , Rating: 2
I agree. This article reads like Big Brother is watching. If the Gov't is fighting transparancy then I say shut the wiretaping down until they read the constitution.


RE: need more data
By Reclaimer77 on 7/9/2012 3:55:29 PM , Rating: 1
quote:
If 1.3 million info requests on cell phones are made, and 1,299,999 helped resolve a missing persons case, catch a serial killer, or stop a terrorist, then sounds like the whole thing is working just fine.


That's very dangerous thinking, in my opinion.

This is WAY too many requests for me to believe there is any sort of "due process" taking place here.

Yes we have our fair share of crime, but 1.3 million crimes where a cell phone supposedly is instrumental in solving? I call BS on that.

Just more evidence of the rampant police state in this nation.


RE: need more data
By kleinma on 7/9/2012 4:18:46 PM , Rating: 4
You are simply speculating, as am I.

The point of my original comment is I can't form a valid opinion without real information. The article has SOME real information, but not enough for me to come to a conclusion based on reasonable facts.

I could come up with valid reasons or conspiracy theories all day long, but it all means nothing but speculation without the full facts.

If it takes people thinking its all spying to have the full facts come out, then I suppose that is ok with me.


RE: need more data
By Reclaimer77 on 7/9/2012 4:33:38 PM , Rating: 1
No I'm being a realist. If you don't have a healthy distrust of Government, well I can't help that. But I think the facts here speak for themselves. Give them an inch, and they will take a mile.

If you're saying you need a case by case explanation for all 1.3 million before you can form an opinion, that just seems absurd to me, no offense.

Besides, you aren't getting the facts anyway. Because this is a Government run thing, it's on a "need to know" basis, and you're just little people so you don't need to know. See how this works? Do you really want to place your trust in that system?


RE: need more data
By kleinma on 7/9/2012 5:17:59 PM , Rating: 1
Just keep that tin foil hat on tight there buddy.


RE: need more data
By Reclaimer77 on 7/9/2012 5:21:33 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
Just keep that tin foil hat on tight there buddy.


How can you even say that given the track record? It's not a conspiracy theory when I'm basing my opinion on thousands and thousands of previous infractions!

I assumed you wanted a discussion, now I see you just want to be a trolling child.


RE: need more data
By fortiori on 7/10/2012 7:11:28 PM , Rating: 2
Reclaimer, the fact that _anyone_ (like the guy above) believes that 1.3 million requests to invade the privacy of the citizens the government is meant to serve is perfectly on the level is far more scary than the actual requests themselves.

You can't kill a virus by fighting the symptoms.


RE: need more data
By Alexvrb on 7/9/2012 9:07:21 PM , Rating: 2
You would discard digital evidence as an option? It's so easy to delete such evidence off a phone, or the phone itself might be inaccessible. It's the year 2012. More and more communications are done via cell phones. It's only natural that more requests occur every year. To get at that info in a reliable fashion, you're often forced to resort to requesting it from the cell phone providers. Especially given how quick and easy it is to destroy such evidence on a local level.

The emergency ones are the only ones I'd be concerned with. I mean really, AT&T, 700 requests daily... nationwide? Only 1/3 of those are emergency requests? I'm so underwhelmed. I'd still look into the emergency ones hard though. If they're tied to things like missing persons, or location information regarding recently-occuring or ongoing crimes, I wouldn't be too worried about those. We still need to check them for abuse though, certainly.

But I don't get the alarmist attitude regarding this particular topic (except to Git Moar Hitz on the article) - and this is coming from someone who dislikes the government. Not everything that every arm of the government does is sinister. The police actually, like, do stuff. Like arrest criminals. It makes it easier to prosecute them if you have, like, you know... evidence or something, Bro.

What is your alternative proposition? No digital evidence, ever? Cause I hate to break it to you... but in many cases the only reliable way to get that information is to go through the cell phone providers.


RE: need more data
By SlyNine on 7/9/2012 4:00:22 PM , Rating: 2
The story is valid and should raise concerns. Questions should be asked. They should NOT be above reproach.

There are 800,000 children alone go missing each year, So you might be on to a very valid point. If that's the case than they should give that data as rebuttal, and provide proof.

Still this is a valid red flag to report. Unless Jason is leaving out information, which I doubt, this should be reported and talked about until we get the proper answers.


RE: need more data
By kleinma on 7/9/2012 4:20:44 PM , Rating: 2
Sure, and I wasn't saying Jason is withholding that information. I think if he had it it would be published. However lack of that information being available doesn't automatically mean the requests are random police spying on citizens just for the fun of it? Are there corrupt police that would do such a thing? Sure, and I bet it is happening, but to what extent I have no idea without more info. You can be sure this is not a case of 1.3 million rouge spying cases though.


RE: need more data
By scooterlibby on 7/9/2012 9:40:22 PM , Rating: 2
Actually you can make a reasonable conclusion with this metric because there are other data points of past performance. Given that, A) it is a reasonable assumption that law enforcement agencies tend to cast a wide 'net' when allowed and, B) The non-tinfoil knowledge of historical events like CointelPro all the way back to the Alien and Sedition acts, can lead one to reasonably conclude the number is doubtfully 1,299,999 out of 2,000,00. Not that it isn't possible, we live in a probabilistic world, but I am going to go out on a limb and say highly unlikely. This should concern the right, left, and in between.


correction
By MadMan007 on 7/9/2012 3:11:03 PM , Rating: 1
"...the need for civil liberties outweighs the need to preserve safety."

^ correction for you, FBI.




RE: correction
By joex444 on 7/9/2012 4:03:22 PM , Rating: 2
Damn straight.

I'll say that I've lived in Switzerland for the last year and am returning back to the US. Lots and lots of times Americans are quick to turn a Europe vs America match into ridiculous arguments; I suppose the entire notion is ridiculous. The two cultures are just so vastly different. But I particularly enjoy how Europeans as a whole haven't changed their lifestyle and priorities in this "terrorism" era. Outside a few successful efforts, I think the bulk of it is made up propaganda to usher us into a more stratified class structure. Why? Because they can. Who? You know who -- our friendly bought and paid for congressman.


RE: correction
By Reclaimer77 on 7/9/2012 4:10:21 PM , Rating: 2
Yeah go live in Eastern Europe and you might have a different opinion. Switzerland is Euro-Lite :P

Secondly, okay, good argument. Let's fly a plane into the Eiffel tower or Buckingham Palace and see if that doesn't cause a few changes.

quote:
Lots and lots of times Americans are quick to turn a Europe vs America match into ridiculous arguments


And yet, you just did that by slamming America and labeling us as over-reactionary fearmongers. England and Europe has made LOTS of changes and has participated in the "war on terror" as well, you're being biased and not reporting the facts.

I also laugh at your "class structure" comment, considering how many places in Europe your status is impacted depending on what family you're born into or province you're from.


RE: correction
By Galcobar on 7/10/2012 1:25:45 AM , Rating: 2
quote:
Secondly, okay, good argument. Let's fly a plane into the Eiffel tower or Buckingham Palace and see if that doesn't cause a few changes.


That was already attempted, actually.

Your argument is that Europe hasn't changed its habits because it hasn't had to deal with dramatic instances of terrorist destruction?

The whole reason 9/11 was a big deal was because it was something new for the U.S. -- but not something new for the world.

The UK has dealt with major terrorist attacks for decades. The IRA and its splinter groups for instance, which last killed in 2009. Or the London subway bombings of 2005. Switzerland, by the way, faced a bombing in 2011 -- though that was aimed at nuclear power companies.

If we're talking about planes, how about Lockerbie in 1998 (Pan Am Fligh 103)? Canada's faced that in 1984 with the Air India bombing. Air France 8969, hijacked in 1994 -- with the intention to blow up the plane over the Eifel Tower. The Euskadi Ta Askatasuna is held responsible for over 800 deaths in France and Spain -- including blowing up a building at a Madrid airport in 2006 which killed two.

Britain has certainly followed America's lead in curtailing civil liberties in favour of security. What's interesting is the timing of the reaction. The oddity is that Britain is indeed following, despite being subject to internal and external terrorist attacks on home soil long before 9/11.

The rest of Europe, however, has not demonstrated the same sort of reaction.


RE: correction
By Reclaimer77 on 7/10/12, Rating: 0
billion with a B
By nafhan on 7/9/2012 3:43:37 PM , Rating: 2
So, from what I can see in this article, US taxpayers paid about a billion dollars (1,000 X 1 million) to compensate the telecoms for spying on taxpayers at the request of the government. Is that right?

Spending billions to drop bombs on people we don't really like is one thing, but this is infuriating.




RE: billion with a B
By joex444 on 7/9/2012 3:58:15 PM , Rating: 2
It's infuriating because of the potential for abuse, and the possible abuse already going on. The 1/3rd of cases that are "emergency" that have lower standards could be anything, we don't really know. Is it simply someone reported missing and it is a real emergency? Is it a suspect terrorist (go grab a search warrant instead and stop being so alarmist)? Is it a practical joke among LEOs, or are they investigating outside the scope of their job? Are they investigating ex-girlfriends, we don't know what is going on here but you can quickly see that people with the authority to issue a request of that nature can easily abuse it. And in the worst case, they do it simply because it nets them or a friend money from the entire deal.

In practical terms, if you take that $1B that it cost last year and divide it by all Americans it's around $3. It gets split up differently, but roughly if you paid taxes then you spent about $3 on this; many of us don't pay taxes and the rich pay the bulk of the them. The rich could have spent upwards of $20 or so, but we are talking a six figure salary at this point so it is still a small fraction. (Strangely, I think they care more than the lower income people do; greed is a curious thing.)

So, it is the privacy issue here. The monetary cost of it isn't a big issue. I'm really not sure if you're aware of this, but a billion dollars to do anything nation-wide is very little money.


A point to note
By Hpoonis on 7/10/2012 3:27:11 AM , Rating: 2
There ARE some dumb muthas out there however, I would offer the suggestion that any serious criminal will avoid texting/emailing information relating to any impending enterprise and just speak to people.

You may offer the suggestion that snail mail is x-ray'd/scanned in some fashion to propagate more snooping theories but sending a letter could be more secure than a digital solution.

There is also the case for civil disobedience: back in the day Henry David Thoreau suggested it was your civic duty to oppose an unjust or tyrannical government. Couple that with the fact that today, if you are even mildly opposed to the current regime, your presence is removed from anywhere near the same location as the tool-at-the-top.

"Sacrificing a few civil liberties to promote national or local security is a small price to pay." But is it? It will only be enough when every minute of every day, everyone is monitored by the ruling authorities.

Thought crime is only a short hop from here.




RE: A point to note
By JediJeb on 7/11/2012 2:05:08 PM , Rating: 2
Exactly. Thomas Paine was considered a hero for writing Common Sense, but today he would be considered a criminal or terrorist or traitor if he wrote the same thing about the government he helped to found.


Others, I am not convince
By mfenn on 7/9/2012 3:27:42 PM , Rating: 2
^^




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