Apr 04, 2012

How worried are you over police cell phone surveillance practices?

There was an article in Ars Technica today that laid out some of the practices of police departments across the country vis a vis mobile phones. The ACLU used open records laws to find out how police were conducting surveillance on cell phone users, and to put it mildly, I am not happy. Among things that were being done, very often without a warrant and with the assistance of network providers who have established price tables for their "services": obtaining a persons photos and video, voicemail records, and SMS content. I know many people think along the lines of, "Oh, well those are people who have done something wrong. It doesn't impact me." Well, wrong, there are very limited protections in place to prevent it from being you, whether you've done anything or not.



And then there are "tower dumps" available from your friendly provider AT&T/Sprint/Alltel/Verizon/T-Mobile for prices ranging from $50 to $500.  If you were in range of a tower and made a call, and police bought a "tower dump" of it, congratulations, your call is now part of police records.  


This may sound a little tin foil hat, and you might think it would happen somewhere else, but not in your town.  Well, the police chief of my city just resigned this week when it was revealed that the FBI is investigating the department for recording citizens' cell phone calls, without warrants or judicial oversight.  If it can happen here it can happen anywhere.


Oops, I almost forgot the link to the article. http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/news/2012/04/documents-show-cops-maki...   


So what do others think.  Am I being paranoid and upset over nothing, or are we entering a future where almost everything we say, write and photograph should just be expected to be subject to police review?



I also find it to be a deeply disturbing trend.  Unfortunately, I do not think the current composition of the judiciary is likely to challenge the police powers of the state.  Just last week, the Supreme Court held that you have no Constitutional protection against strip searches, even if you are picked up in error as was the situation that led to the case, or if it is a minor non-criminal offense.  Also, keep in mind that there was a recent decision related to GPS tracking of vehicles by law enforcement personnel without a warrant.  While the Court determined that it was an unconstitutional act under the 4th Amendment, the peg on which the Court hung its hat was the physical attachment of a GPS device to the subject vehicle.  During oral arguments, there were musings about whether this would be true if the FBI had used data from the individuals' cell phones.  Since much of this musing came from Scalia, a regular and consistent member of the conservative 5-4 majority, I would not rest conformably on the presumption that the Supreme Court will take the side of the individual in any privacy dispute involving law "enforcement".   


When it comes to Congress, good luck getting anything passed that an opponent could point at and claim, "Look, my opponent favors the privacy of terrorists over the saints of law enforcement who are trying to protect the children."  :-0

I think it's quite awful.

The way to deal with it is probably a two pronged strategy.

The first part might be legislation banning all such practices by police who lack a proper warrant issued by a judge. The legislation should include criminal penalties for police who break the law.

The second part might be some sort of encryption or other privacy controls built into the phone and/or network service that the phone uses. I'm not sure how this would work, but it seems like the phone makers and network carriers could come up with something that would stop the cops from doing this. Is it possible? I don't know but I'd like to see somebody try.

Police departments had also better watch it because they might end up getting sued if they do this to the wrong person. That could cost the town or municipality a lot of money if the phone owner wins in court.

I suspect this issue will eventually be dealt with, one way or the other.
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