Is Your Cell Phone Snitching on You?

Over a million requests by law enforcement for cell phone records last year

3 min read

Is Your Cell Phone Snitching on You?

There was an interesting op-ed piece in the New York Times about a week ago that argued that we should begin calling our cell phones by a more accurate descriptive name, e.g., our personal “tracker.” The piece argues that the purpose of cell phones is increasingly less about servicing the communication needs of their owners, and increasing more about gathering data about their users’ activities to be analyzed by third parties, commercial and government alike.

The op-ed states that, “Thanks to the explosion of GPS technology and smartphone apps, these devices are also taking note of what we buy, where and when we buy it, how much money we have in the bank, whom we text and e-mail, what Web sites we visit, how and where we travel, what time we go to sleep and wake up — and more. Much of that data is shared with companies that use it to offer us services they think we want.”

Government law enforcement is a big user of cell phone information. For instance, according to Massachusetts Congressman Edward Markey, federal, state and local law enforcement agencies made over 1.3 million requests to cell phone companies for subscriber-related information, often including their location, call records, and text messages in 2011. Often, each request includes multiple subscribers, so the true number of people being tracked is likely several times the 1.3 million figure. In addition, law enforcement officials also sometimes ask for “cell tower dumps,” meaning all calls made from a particular tower over some time period, further inflating the number.

While most of these requests are legitimate, the number of government requests for such subscriber information has significantly increased in the past decade. For example, T-Mobile stated that such requests have increased 12-16 percent annually, the LA Times reports. Twitter recently stated that the number of law enforcement requests it has received by early July of this year was already greater than all the requests it had received in 2011.

Markey states that no one really knows "how law enforcement differentiates between records of innocent people, and those that are subjects of investigation, as well as how it handles, administers, and disposes of this information." The American Civil Liberties Union has recently filed suit against the U. S. Department of Justice (DoJ) and other government agencies to find out "how often they use surveillance tools that capture the email addresses contacted, phone numbers called and websites visited by a person," the Wall Street Journal story reports. Since 2009, the DoJ is required by law to disclose this information, but has been reticent to do so.

In addition, as an article in today’s New York Times notes, many of governmental requests for cell phone (and e-mail) records are court-sealed secret surveillance orders. This means that they do not have to be publicly disclosed, and according to the Times story, likely never will be, even after the criminal investigations are ended. Because of this, as one Federal Court judge noted, “law-abiding citizens will never know that the government has accessed their e-mails, text messages, Twitter accounts or cellphone records.”

Law enforcement isn’t the only one using cell phones to track a person, of course. Retailers are increasingly figuring out how to use your Internet browsing information along with the location data from your phone so that when you enter their stores they can send you advertising text messages offering you a discount if you buy the item within the next 15 minutes or so. 

Columbia University law professor Eben Moglen, on the other hand, instead thinks we should be calling our cell phones robots, “for which – the proud owners – are merely their hands and feet,” the op-ed noted. Moglen argues for the use of this term because cell phones, “See everything, they’re aware of our position, our relationship to other human beings and other robots, they mediate and information stream around us.”

You can, of course, keep you cell phone from ratting on you by turning it off except when absolutely necessary, or by buying a burn phone, but this isn’t really practical for most users.

So, as the op-ed concludes,

“We can love or hate these devices – or love and hate them – but it would make sense to call them what they are so we can fully understand what they do.”

Given that, what new name should we call our cell phones: trackers, robots or something else?

And remember too, think about how it will be used to describe the cell phone industry as well. The snitch industry, anyone?

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