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Surging Surveillance: Shocking Number of Cell Users' Data Tracked

Common Dreams staff

Cell phone surveillance has surged dramatically with over 1.3 million requests made last year by law enforcement agencies to cell phone companies for users' data, according to the results of a Congressional investigation released Monday.

Cell Phone Man

The information comes in response to a request from Representative Edward Markey, co-chair of the Bipartisan Congressional Privacy Caucus, to nine cell phone carriers after reading a New York Times article from April on the spike in cell phone tracking with little oversight.

The results of the findings shocked Markey. “I never expected it to be this massive,” he said. While the 1.3 million requests is staggering, the Times reports Monday that the total number of people affected "could be several times higher than the number of requests" since one request may involve many individuals.

The Times reports that "AT&T alone now responds to an average of more than 700 requests a day," three times the number of requests from 2007 while Sprint had the biggest number averaging 1500 requests a day.

"We cannot allow privacy protections to be swept aside with the sweeping nature of these information requests, especially for innocent consumers," warned Markey. "Law enforcement agencies are looking for a needle, but what are they doing with the haystack?"

The Hill reports the law enforcement requests would demand information including "text messages, location data, call logs and 'cell tower dumps,' in which the wireless carriers provide police with all of the phone numbers that connected to a particular cell tower in a period of time."

Trevor Timm of Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) writes that this "is a recipe for a privacy disaster" and says the EFF believes "the Fourth Amendment protects cell location information."

The ACLU notes that the lack of privacy safeguards for customers leaves people wide open to this type of surveillance. “Whether they realize it or not, Americans are carrying tracking devices with them wherever they go. Today’s new information makes it clear that law enforcement has carte blanche to follow the trail they leave behind,” said Christopher Calabrese, ACLU legislative counsel. “The cell phone data of innocent Americans is almost certainly swept up in these requests. Without clear safeguards and standards for how law enforcement gathers and stores location information, there is a massive privacy gap that leaves all of us vulnerable.”

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