A little over a year ago, mobile phone companies responded to a congressional inquiry, disclosing just how many occasions on which they’ve handed over users’ cell phone data over to the FBI and other law enforcement agencies. According to the New York Times, cell phone companies responded to 1.3 million demands from law enforcement for subscribers’ information in the previous year alone. Oddly, many of these records, like location data, do not require the acquisition of a search warrant or very much court oversight.
Both police and cell phone service providers had previously resisted releasing these details to Congress on the scope of cell phone surveillance, but new disclosures from cell phone companies still leave a myriad of unanswered questions. There’s still a lot we have left to learn. So more than one million people had their cell phone records picked up by law enforcement surveillance?
To be truthful, the figure is probably way more staggering than that, but there’s no way to be sure. While the New York Times calculated the overall number of law enforcement requests, each of those requests covered more than one person, and just how many, no one knows for sure. For example, law enforcement agencies, when seeking information on location, frequently ask for “tower dumps,” which list every phone in range of a cell tower at a particular time. So in cities where those cell towers are located closely in proximity to one another, it’s possible that the locations of thousands of people may have been swept up in a single request.
Present everywhere, even outside of urban areas, are small boxes known as microcells. They are what serve to get you reception in crowded places like shopping malls, and these little things record highly precise location data. In its letter to Congress, Sprint stated that each subpoena it received typically asked for detailed information on multiple subscribers. So this calculation does not include reports from T-Mobile, one of the nation’s four largest carriers, because it did not initially provide them, as it stated: “T-Mobile does not disclose the number of requests we receive from law enforcement annually.” T-Mobile did say it responded to 191,000 requests in the year 2011, alone, but more current data remained unavailable.
Privacy activists have long held that requests for location data require a search warrant to be constitutional. They say police are essentially using cell phones as tracking devices. But the Supreme Court hasn’t ruled on the issue, and Congress has still to pass a law addressing it.
The Obama Administration’s Department of Justice has said mobile phone users have “no reasonable expectation of privacy.”