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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 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.


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