Mobile Emergency: 1.3 Million Cell Phone Spies

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Less than two months ago, we published an article detailing how cell phone companies routinely sell your personal cell phone data to local and federal law enforcement without a warrant or any oversight at all.

Well, according to an article recently published in the New York Times by Eric Lichtblau, it looks like the problem is actually much worse than anyone knew. Not only did law enforcement routinely ask cell phone carriers for personal cell phone data, they made (at least) 1.3 million requests just last year alone.

No one really knows how many requests were made because cell phone carriers kept incomplete records, but that number alone is staggering.

But it gets worse: many requests contained multiple cell phone subscribers, which means that millions, if not tens of millions, of people were spied upon by law enforcement without a warrant last year.

And based on the explosive growth of these requests in the past few years, it looks like that number will only increase in the future.

The Cold, Hard Facts

U.S. Representative Edward Markey (D-MA) requested law enforcement data request information from nine carriers, including AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile. Even he was surprised by what he found.

Sprint had over 1,500 data requests a day from law enforcement in 2011, and AT&T responded to 700 requests daily, an increase of 300% in only the last five years.

Usually cell phone carries required a warrant, a court order, or a formal subpoena to release cell phone data regarding a subscriber. But there is a loophole: if law enforcement deems the information an emergency, they can request the data without any court oversight.

And what constitutes an emergency is often a very blurry line. In 2007, the FBI was found to have made thousands of “emergency” requests for investigations that did not involve any emergency. And once law enforcement has this information, they are under no obligation to delete it from internal databases.

Meanwhile, the cell phone carriers are making enormous profits from providing subscriber information to law enforcement. AT&T made over $8 million last year alone, a number which was matched by other companies.

Your Cell Phone Data Reveals Your Life

It might not seem like a big deal that law enforcement can view your cell phone data. Maybe 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 such as Google and Facebook collect. If you’re not concerned about this invasion of your privacy, you should be.

No one is saying that law enforcement shouldn’t be able to use the tools at their disposal to help solve crimes and catch criminals. But the laws and standards of law enforcement should respect our right to privacy and they should be transparent as to how our private information is being collected and sold.

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Kent Lawson

Kent Lawson is the CEO & Chairman of Private Communications Corporation and creator of its flagship software PRIVATE WiFi. He combined his extensive business and technical experience to develop PRIVATE WiFi in 2010. The software is an easy-to-use Virtual Private Network (VPN) that protects your sensitive personal information whenever you’re connected to a public WiFi network. Follow Kent on Twitter: @KentLawson.