Did you know that cell phone companies routinely sell personal cell phone data to the police without a warrant or any oversight at all?
If you’re like most Americans, you probably know nothing about it.
No one outside of law enforcement and the cell phone companies know exactly what information is being exchanged and how often. Congress and the courts have no idea either.
And the cell phone companies are fighting very hard to keep it that way.
What Your Cell Phone Data Reveals About You
Maybe you don’t care that police have access to your cell phone data. Perhaps you think that this information doesn’t reveal much about you.
But your cell phone calls can show which people are closest to you, and cell phones also track where you go. Over time, this data builds a very revealing picture of your life. This information is much more intrusive than what most websites collect.
There are definitely situations when the police need this information for legitimate law enforcement purposes. But law-abiding citizens should have a right to privacy.
Consider this: in 2009, Sprint admitted that they had received so many requests from the police that they set up a website where the police could simply access any cell phone data whenever they wanted. And these phone companies have created handbooks that describe what information they collect and what prices they charge for revealing this to law enforcement.
Don’t we have a basic right to know about how our personal information is being used, especially when someone else is profiting off of it?
The Fight Against Transparency
Cell phone companies do not want this practice to become known by the general public. The cell phone industry recently came out in opposition to a bill in the California legislature that would require them to notify their customers about how often and under what circumstances they turn over cell phone data to police as “unduly burdensome.”
The Wall Street Journal once reported on whether electronic tracking is comparable to routine surveillance as following a suspect in an unmarked police car on city streets:
“Little is known about the practice because tracking requests are typically sealed from public view. While search warrants are generally delivered to people whose property is being searched, most people whose phones are targeted never learn about it. They typically find out only if they are charged with a crime and their tracking data are used as evidence against them.
The Journal identified more than 1,000 instances of cellphone tracking in several large U.S. cities last year through open-records requests and court documents. The data showed that the practice is a widely and increasingly used police tool.
The Los Angeles Police Department last year, for example, tracked 295 phones, up 35% from a year earlier, according to department records. Miami-Dade police said it tracked locations of 130 phones in 2010, up from 102 in 2009. Federal prosecutors in the Southern District of Florida, meanwhile, sought cellphone location data 189 times last year, up 8% from 2009, according to court records.”
A decade ago, the Justice Department told Congress that they should not pursue a bill that would have required law enforcement to compile similar information. Congress listened and abandoned the bill.
So what do you think?