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'Massive' cellphone surveillance by law enforcement

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Privacy is a thing of the past — according to statistics on cell phone surveillance. In the first measure of its kind, cell phone carriers reported just how often law enforcement seeks information on mobile phone users.

In 2011 alone, at least 1.3 million requests were made for cell records, according to Congressman Edward Markey (D-Mass) who queried wireless companies for the data. Markey calls the number "startling."

He adds, "We cannot allow privacy protections to be swept aside with the sweeping nature of these information requests, especially for innocent consumers." Information shared with police and FBI includes data such as a geolocation information, text messages, wiretaps and "cell tower dumps." Those dumps show all the phone numbers that connected to a cell tower during a specific period of time. (It's unclear how long officials keep that information.)

Wireless companies devote significant resources to gathering the data and have concerns about the process. Sprint explains: "There is no statute that directly addresses the provision of location data of a mobile device to the government. … Given the importance of this issue and the competing and at times contradictory legal standards, Sprint believes that Congress should clarify the legal requirements for disclosure of all types of location information to law enforcement personnel."

The American Civil Liberties Union says there is a remedy: "Fortunately there are two bipartisan bills in Congress (one in the House and one in the Senate) that do just that, by requiring law enforcement to secure a warrant based on probable cause before obtaining location information. They are both called the GPS Act...."

How invasive is this type of surveillance? Do consumers have a right to privacy in cell use? When are subpoenas or search warrants required? How does this square with the recent Supreme Court case on GPS monitoring by police?


Chris Calabrese, Legislative Counsel, American Civil Liberties Union

Joseph Cassilly, past President of the National District Attorneys Association (NDAA); current State’s Attorney for Harford County, Maryland; In May, Cassily testified at the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security in opposition to the GPS Act