Your Stolen Cellphone's Records Are Going Straight to the Cops

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Without court orders of any sort, the New York City police have gotten access to "a trove of telephone logs," reports The New York Times's Joseph Goldstein. In a somewhat frightening twist, it takes more paperwork to get a thief's cell records than it takes to get the victim's. Here's how it works:

Police need a subpoena to get access to the phone logs of the person who did the stealing, which makes sense because those could help solve the crime. (Though, often they don't, say detectives.) But in that process, the NYPD, without additional warrants or subpoenas or any of that, can see all the happenings on that stolen phone. Sometimes phone companies even give up information associated with the victim's new number, which is a little bit unsettling, right? Civil Rights Lawyer Norman Siegal agrees. "There is absolutely no legitimate purpose for doing this. If I’m an innocent New Yorker, why should any of my information be in a police database," he tells Goldstein. Also, it doesn't quite make sense that law enforcement would hold on to the information after the case is closed, either. Police won't say how many records they have hostage. But phone companies got 1.5 million* of these requests in 2011 alone. So, probably a lot? T-Mobile responded to almost 300 in January alone. 

This is the second in a series of Times stories this week that shows how easy it is under current laws for the government to gain access to our phone's insides. In yesterday's paper, we learned that some courts maintain law enforcement should have easy access to all the stuff on our very smart fancy phones. Now we know that in some cases, the police are going ahead and looking at innocent people's phone log without much cause. It's probably best to keep all this in mind as the Senate begins its debate on changes to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act this Thursday. 

*This post originally stated that the phone companies got 1.5 billion requests in 2011. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.