Betrayed By Your Bits: Your Cell Phone, Their Spy!

JULY 16, 2012 Betrayed by bits: Your cellphone, their spy The news of U.S. law enforcement’s widespread mobile snooping did not sit well with Cringely’s readers By Robert X. Cringely | InfoWorldFollow @ifw_cringely My post last week about how often U.S. law enforcement agencies request data from wireless providers (“They know who you called last summer”) sparked quite a reaction here in Cringeville. As I noted in the piece, the nine wireless companies polled by Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) estimated that law enforcement made some 1.3 million requests in 2011, ranging from call records to the content of text messages to full-blown wire(less) taps. The real number of subscribers whose data got shared could be much higher, depending on how many cell tower dumps were requested. I also noted that taxpayers foot the bill for these searches, via monies paid out by the cops to the carriers; AT&T alone billed more than $8 million for such services last year. Apparently I was not the only person a little perturbed by our government’s eagerness to to spy on our mobiles. I got letters from several Cringesters with strong opinions on the matter. I thought I’d share a few of them here. R.J.N. writes: Requiring carriers to notify users of the records searched and the information that was shared … might make the feds think twice before requesting so much, so often, so privately! I see this as a definite violation of an individual’s rights. He adds that when he asked Sprint for help in locating his phone when it went missing, he was told that they could only give this information out to the police and only in situations that were life-threatening. Seems like that wasn’t the whole truth, now was it? H.H. asked how many of those 1.3 million searches were requested via a subpoena or other court order, as the Fourth Amendment requires. Good question — after filing that post last week, I found a link to all of the responses to Rep. Markey from the nine wireless companies. They vary a lot in terms of specificity; most of them did not break out which requests were made for emergency purposes (such as an e911 location request) and which were made as part of a criminal or other legal matter. But AT&T’s letter [PDF] did. Of the 260,000 or so requests for mobile data, some 180,000 were in response to a subpoena or other court order; the rest were emergency requests. Assuming that percentage holds across the other carriers, that would mean about 70 percent of the 1.3 million data searches were accompanied by a court order. R.C. writes: Too bad the Constitution was such a wonderful document. What are we supposed to do now that we don’t live under it anymore? He advises doing a partial Kaczynski: Never register a car under your real name, use a satellite phone, and surf the Web only at Internet cafés. Not paranoid enough for you? Then wait til you hear what reader E.F. has to say: You neglected to mention the massive new NSA data center in Utah. When this facility is complete, no wiretap will ever disappear. It will be stored on these servers forever. People who think local law enforcement won’t be sharing the information gleaned from these access requests with the NSA are dreaming. A handful of readers offered up a simple solution for cop spying: Turn off your cellphone. Yes, that would certainly make you harder to track. But then, why are you paying for a phone? And how should you manage that? Should you turn it off only when you believe a crime is going to be committed nearby? We pay hundreds — if not thousands — of dollars a year for the ability to connect with virtually anyone, anywhere around the world. You could debate whether we really need this capability, you could argue we were better off before we were always no more than 10 or 12 digits away. But that is the reality in this second decade of the 21st century. Clearly, technology has far outstripped the ability of the legal system to keep pace. The question in my mind is whether we can catch up before we are stripped of our rights along with it. What do you say, Cringesters? Willing to ditch your cellphone and go back to a landline — or maybe the telegram? Ditch your keyboards for parchment and quill pens? Post your thoughts below or scribble me a note: This article, “Betrayed by bits: Your cellphone, their spy,” was originally published at Follow the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringely’s Notes from the Field blog, and subscribe to Cringely’s Notes from the Underground newsletter.


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