A report released by US cell phone companies shows a disturbing spike in the number of requests by US law enforcement agencies for cell phone information. Even more disturbing, most law enforcement agencies do not provide a proper warrant.
The new information reported by the New York Times shows that US cell phone companies responded to an overwhelming 1.3 million requests from law enforcement officials to provide cell phone data. The results show a dramatic yearly increase, suggesting an increasing reliance and willingness of law enforcement to use the information at will.
The numbers show an increase in the number of information requests – from 12 per cent to 15 per cent – over the past five years. Interestingly enough, cell phone carriers can now turn a profit by charging per request, and have hired their own round-the-clock lawyers to deal with the possible legal problems that might arise .
For example, the number of requests fielded by AT & T alone has tripled over the course of the last five years, responding to about 700 a day. Thirty of those requests are deemed ‘emergency cases’ which do not require a warrant.
“I never expected it to be this massive,” said Representative Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who requested the reports from nine carriers, as reported by the New York Times.
Coupled with an American Civil Liberties Union report in April, however, there is a disturbing problem with the way law enforcement agencies are making their requests; they hardly ever ask for warrants.
The ACLU report made waves when its investigation uncovered not only the widespread requests, but also discovered that the practice was so commonplace that most cell phone companies have started to charge money per inquiry, making a profit in turn. Also, the amount of requests have become so large that the cell phone companies themselves have displayed a note of concern, hiring their own teams of in-house lawyers to evaluate the legality of every information request.
Those carriers that cannot afford their own lawyers are forced to outsource the legal issue to another company.
In the face of the steep increase, carriers have occasionally denied requests, questioning their legality independently and determining there was no real emergency warranting the immediate release of information.
However, it also seems that law enforcement agencies are wise to the tenuousness of their newfound practice, being instructed to not reveal in police reports the real extent to which cell phone information is used in investigations.
“Do not mention to the public or the media the use of cell phone technology or equipment used to locate the targeted subject,” reads one Iowa City Police Department training manual.
Another New York Times report cited a California 2010 police manual that instructed officers on ‘how to get the good stuff’ from cell technology.
What happened to probable cause?
Law enforcement agencies defend their use of cell phone information, stating that it saves lives, and helps pinpoint individuals that may be in danger. “At every crime scene, there’s some type of mobile device,” according to Peter Modafferi, chief of detectives for the Rockland County district attorney’s office in New York. He claims the need for the police to exploit that technology “has grown tremendously, and it’s absolutely vital.”
Furthermore, cell phone carriers insist that they always ask for legal documentation before they release information to the authorities.However, the ACLU has painted a starkly different picture.
“Unfortunately,…departments do not always demonstrate probable cause and obtain a warrant when tracking cell phones. For example, police in Lincoln, Neb. obtain even GPS location data, which is more precise than cell tower location information, on telephones without demonstrating probable cause,” the ACLU said in its April report.
“Police in Wilson County, N.C. obtain historical cell tracking data where it is "relevant and material" to an ongoing investigation, a standard lower than probable cause.”
While all parties agree that the technology can be extremely useful in assisting in emergency cases, the lack of standardized protective laws becomes incredibly problematic when it comes to these requests. At the very least, according to the ACLU and lawmakers, restrictions and better oversight are needed to protect individuals from invasive government ‘wire-tapping’ and to protect civil liberties.
Mr. Markey said in an interview he was concerned that the privacy of many customers had already been unlawfully breached.
“There’s a real danger we’ve already crossed the line,” he said.