Surveillance of Cellphone Records, Necessary or a Violation of Privacy?

Cellphone carriers report that they get thousands of official requests from law enforcement every day for subscriber records, such as text messages, caller locations, etc.

This week, the New York Times reported that law enforcement agencies have placed a high demand on cell phone carriers in regards to providing information on subscribers’ text messages, caller locations and other investigative requirements. In fact, cell phone service providers responded to 1.3 million demands from law enforcement agencies just last year. The carriers' report, which was in response to a Congressional inquiry, showed that carriers turn over thousands of records a day in response to police emergencies, court orders and law enforcement subpoenas.

The magnitude of the requests shocked even those in Congress making the inquiry and gave rise to some questions about just how intrusive the policy is. Some carriers objected to the requests and refused when the felt they could. One carrier even called on the Federal Bureau of Investigation when it was felt that a request was inappropriate.

Law enforcement agencies claim the location data provided by GPS technology in phones is a powerful law enforcement tool. The carriers, however, are worried that handing over this information crosses the line and violates privacy issues.

What do you think? Does the value to law enforcement outweigh concerns that carriers have compromising the privacy of their subscribers?

Dave Ballard July 12, 2012 at 09:16 PM
You know, there's a lot of paranoia out there about the degree of information available to "Big Government" regarding our personal lives and activities. Some of this is justified, to be sure, but it's important to keep some perspective. It's clear from the article that these companies are not simply handing the records over in every case. Now, if the police ask, and the cellphone companies say OK, that's between them. Any records that should have required a subpeona or warrant can probably get thrown out of a criminal case after legal review. But it's also important to remember that such agreements have happened since there've been phones on which to keep records. The issue people worry about is the fact that many phones now also keep a record of their location when calls are made. When you think about it, land-line phones have always done the same thing, simply by virtue of their low-tech nature: you HAVE to be in one place to make a call on a land-line phone (by and large). So there's really not much of a difference between what's happening now, and what happened 30 years ago in this regard. When the police/govt. start using these records to track our movements on a wholescale, polpulation-wide basis, then it might be time to make some serious changes.
Marne M July 12, 2012 at 10:40 PM
People have a lot of stress about "big brother" looking over their shoulder. I work for a fairly large police agency, and access to cell phone records is, frankly, a hassle. We will pull records when we need to, in other words when we have an active case in which cell phone records can provide some evidence. And even then, we issue a subpoena or get a search warrant first, and it can take a month to get the data. If there is some dangerous circumstance (a kidnapping, homicide, etc) we might pull cell tower information in order to find out the location of a phone (victim's phone, suspect's phone, etc.) or even initiate an active search for the phone, assuming it is on and active -- but this requires, in most jurisdictions, a rigorously scrutinized court order signed by a superior court judge. Don't let television shows fool you into thinking that access to a person's records, location, or even conversation is somehow easy and fast. It's simply not the case.
Dwayne July 12, 2012 at 11:03 PM
Whether it's a phone or not, just closing my eyes and imagining 2 people's right to have a private conversation without stalkerish behavior, it seems uncharacteristic of a free and voluntary society to get that involved without informed individual consent. That may sound pro-criminal to the paranoid, but should rather sound pro-american for the patriot. To say you offered 'consent' by getting the service in the first place, sounds a bit coercive. That in itself is unethical, right? This Big Brother junk needs to have some boundaries in place to maintain functionality. This is invasion of privacy by default and being unethical to persuade others to be ethical just seems a bit hypocritical. I mean, the Declaration of Indepedence does mention that the purpose of Government was to protect our rights, correct? So why is it they are usually the first to ask (to say politely) you to waive your rights? The ends do not support the means.
Dave Ballard July 12, 2012 at 11:35 PM
Dwayne, "informed individual consent" goes a bit out the window when engaged in criminal activity. If you can show me where the police are routinely unnecessarily grabbing up these records, or phone companies are giving them up unnecessarily, then I'll join you in wondering where our liberties have gone. Meanwhile, if you're looking to start the next revolution (and I'm NOT condoning such, mind you), you might try a more serious, more obvious affront to our liberties: a TSA checkpoint.
Dwayne July 13, 2012 at 12:38 AM
Dave... I totally agree with you about when people are engaged in criminal activities. If necessary, a person should be under survelance. The problem I'm trying to address though is that it seems to be the default to have private conversations recorded and/or monitored, etc. Just because some people do bad things, the remaining majority should not be treated as potential criminals and such. I think that's the debatable part. It's a bit aggressive. Why treat everyone the same for the actions of some? I never said anything about a revolution, but a return to a more ethical behavior would be very nice. I just have a hard time accepting people doing unethical things in the name of promoting ethical things. Yes, the TSA thing is a bit of a paranoid over-reach as well.. don't even get me started there lol. They do the same mentality with non-custodial parents too. It's practically a probationary sentence just by getting a divorce for the unlucky party, like it was a crime to get a divorce and not get served full custody. All for the sake of the words "probably", "potentially", etc, our approach seems to be towards treating everyone as though they will. All the accountability seems to be burdened by all the people and very little on the ones in office. If something goes wrong, they make a law restricting us i/o improving their performances. Don't police take phones as "evidence", especially when they're the ones being recorded?
Dwayne July 13, 2012 at 12:50 AM
Some of this info was a little more comforting. It would be a lot better if it all worked that way to limit people's ability to commit them horrifying crimes while making it extremely justified to call upon such records. However, I've been hearing that on a federal level, just saying certain keywords in a conversation can strike certain suspicions and that may cause people to fear their right to freedom of speech to disagree with their government. I guess the question is if the positive results justify the negative affects. Sometimes, I get the feeling that people feel our rights are the problem. With that mentality, I wonder if what this country was founded on is the best choice for them to live in. Turning a right into a crime or privilege, is in itself a crime isn't it?
Ryan Smith (Editor) July 13, 2012 at 03:16 PM
Dave, Amen on the TSA checkpoint!
Irene Budoff July 13, 2012 at 05:08 PM
If the police need the information, a warrant can be obtained. Ditto the government. Otherwise, it is a clear violation of the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution, concerning illegal search and seizure. By the way, on the subject of the government, whatever happened to the FISA court?


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