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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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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.

"So, I think the same thing of the music industry. They can't say that they're losing money, you know what I'm saying. They just probably don't have the same surplus that they had." -- Wu-Tang Clan founder RZA

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