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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.


"People Don't Respect Confidentiality in This Industry" -- Sony Computer Entertainment of America President and CEO Jack Tretton














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