Police Frequently Get Private Cell Phone Data Without a Warrant

Last year, wireless carriers fielded 1.3 million requests for information from law enforcement.

Cell tower Flickr rust bucket.png
Rust Bucket/Flickr

Writing on wireless firms and the flood of requests they're getting from police to turn over private customer data like call records, text messages, and GPS coordinates that track everywhere people go with their smart phone, Eric Lichtblau reports an extraordinary bit of information: "AT&T alone now responds to an average of more than 700 requests a day, with about 230 of them regarded as emergencies that do not require the normal court orders and subpoena."

Do the math: 230 requests per day times 365 days.

83,950 emergency requests per year! 

That's almost 84,000 instances of police bypassing normal procedures and safeguards to obtain information. Are there really that many circumstances that justify invoking emergency privileges?

And that's just requests made to AT&T!

"Sprint, which did not break down its figures in as much detail as other carriers, led all companies last year in reporting what amounted to at least 1,500 data requests on average a day," the article notes.

All carriers report dramatic increases.

There's more alarming news:

As cell surveillance increased, warrants for wiretapping by federal and local officials -- eavesdropping on conversations -- declined 14 percent last year to 2,732, according to a recent report from the Administrative Office of the United States Courts. The diverging numbers suggest that law enforcement officials are shifting away from wiretaps in favor of other forms of cell tracking that are generally less legally burdensome, less time consuming and less costly. 

The foregone information and much more has come to light thanks to Massachusetts Rep. Edward J. Markey, a Democrat. His findings, the decline in warrant requests, the varying, opaque standards cell carriers use to protect customer data, and the lack of clarity provided by court cases all militate in favor of Congress debating and setting clear standards to protect privacy.

Some police requests for private data are legitimate.

But a judicial check on police demanding private information is a core check that safeguards Fourth Amendment rights. Until warranted requirements are updated so that they apply to already ubiquitous communication tools, Americans will continue to suffer from more unreasonable searches than their forebears. And police will have more opportunities to abuse their authority.

I can't help but wondering whether the illegal warrantless wiretapping that the Bush Administration started for counterterrorism purposes has desensitized Americans to privacy infringement. Now even non-terrorism related investigations involve bypassing judges and amassing private data. And this despite a long history of illegitimate police surveillance being perpetrated in the United States. It isn't as if we're unaware of the illegitimate behavior that occurs when too little oversight is applied. To delay in addressing this problem is to invite scandal.
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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