We all rely on our smart phones and do not think about the information they collect about us as we go about our day to day lives. But we really should be concerned about exactly what our smart phones are able to collect and what law enforcement can do with that information. Remember the big deal last year when it was revealed that wireless carriers could get information about us as we moved from cell site to cell site. That information reveals where you have been traveling and is very valuable. Much of the focus back then was about what individual phones were collecting and after wireless carriers in the US pledged to make changes, things quieted down.
But in reality, the vulnerability of our phones is now beginning to come out. And it is even worse then what was talked about last year. This is the result of a story regarding a significant rise in surveillance request from law enforcement. The requests in 2011 are 62% higher for AT&T as compared to 2009 and that should alarm people. There were over 1.3 billion requests last year for all the wireless carriers. The information they are requesting can show where you have been and how long you were there. If you are concerned about privacy, then this should really scare you. No longer is it about listening in phone calls which does require a warrant. Now there is much more information based on location tracking and a warrant is not required.
There are calls for Congressional investigation because of the rapid rise in “warrantless cell phone” requests of the wireless carriers. The wireless carriers seem to be more than willing to turn over information because they can charge a fee to cover their costs in turning over the information. AT&T made $8 million last year in fees. Don’t think that it costs wireless carriers to turn over this information. The fees they charge more than cover any costs they incur. And all of this is without a warrant. While some requests are turned down, most are fulfilled by wireless carriers.
To give you an idea of just how many they are filling, you only have to look at staffing. AT&T has a group of 100 full time employees who review each request and respond to the law enforcement agency making the request. Verizon has a team of 70 full time employees. Some of the requests come from court orders, but many do not. It is those which are not court orders which should have everyone very concerned.
The unfortunate reality is the laws are trailing far behind the fast moving technology. And with just about every new phone coming with GPS and cell phone towers tracking your movement as you move between cell sites, you are visible even though you do not realize it. And more smart phones are being purchased everyday which have better technology in them. Signals are getting stronger and the move to 4G LTE is only going to make things faster. And that is exactly what law enforcement wants.
For the law enforcement community, there is big treasure to be gleaned from the information which they want to collect and right now, there are no requirements to restrict them in the requests. As long as the wireless carriers can make some money out of selling this information, they will continue to comply with requests until such time as warrants are required.
Given how fast laws get created to keep up with technology, it will be a while before things change in an effort to protect our privacy. For now, if you have a smart phone, you are not as private as you think.