But what most Americans are blissfully unaware of is the fact that they carry in their pockets what have been described as near-perfect spy devices: their cellphones.
Earlier this week, The New York Times disclosed that “cellphone carriers reported that they responded to a startling 1.3 million demands for subscriber information last year from law enforcement agencies seeking text messages, caller locations and other information in the course of investigations.”
The report by carriers, made in response to congressional inquiries “document an explosion in cellphone surveillance in the last five years, with the companies turning over records thousands of times a day in response to police emergencies, court orders, law enforcement subpoenas and other requests.”
“I never expected it to be this massive,” said Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-MA), the co-chair of the Bipartisan Congressional Privacy Caucus, “who requested the reports from nine carriers, including AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon.”
Markey told the Times that the prevalence of cellphone surveillance by law enforcement agencies raised the specter of “digital dragnets” that threaten the privacy of most customers.
While the sheer volume of requests by local, state and federal police for user data may have startled Congress, which by-and-large has turned a blind eye when it comes to privacy depredations at all levels of government, it is hardly a complete picture of the pervasive nature of the problem.
In 2009 security watchdog Christopher Soghoian reported on his Slight Paranoia web site that just one firm, Sprint Nextel, “provided law enforcement agencies with its customers’ (GPS) location information over 8 million times between September 2008 and October 2009. This massive disclosure of sensitive customer information was made possible due to the roll-out by Sprint of a new, special web portal for law enforcement officers.” (emphasis added)
According to Soghoian, “Internet service providers and telecommunications companies play a significant, yet little known role in law enforcement and intelligence gathering.”
“Government agents routinely obtain customer records from these firms,” Soghoian averred, “detailing the telephone numbers dialed, text messages, emails and instant messages sent, web pages browsed, the queries submitted to search engines, and of course, huge amounts of geolocation data, detailing exactly where an individual was located at a particular date and time.”
While there are indeed “exigent circumstances” which may require law enforcement to demand instant access to GPS data or other customer records–a kidnapping or child abduction in progress–in the main however, it appears that most warrant-free requests fall under a more sinister category: fishing expedition.