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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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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.


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