Stasi Surveillance State’s Local Deal Of The Day

And you thought Groupon, Living Social and Google stalked you.

Local, state and federal entities in 2011 served wireless carriers over 1.3 million demands for subscriber information. Note “over” 1.3 million. No one has accurate records. Or can explain how the information was used.

The 1.3 million number is farcically low. Sprint alone said it responded to 500,000 subpoenas in 2011, and each subpoena typically demanded information on more than one subscriber. Do the math. Want more? Governments demand (and get) *total* data dumps from entire cell towers for a period of time. Tens if not hundreds of thousands of subscribers’ information swept into government hands *each time*.

FBI, Surveillance, Warrantless Surveillance, cellular data, geo location

Is it legal? No one’s really sure. Carriers often require warrants. Or subpoenas. Or they comply without formalities, agreeing to governments’ burgeoning declarations of emergency. Digital information doesn’t easily fit in old analog legal frameworks. Thus, carriers are coming forward asking Congress to clarify the rules. And cover their expenses.

We’ve discussed here our experiences representing carriers during CALEA negotiations and implementation. Then as now carriers in public go through the motions respecting customer privacy. During CALEA, there was a tribal defense of the ‘cage’ from FBI intrusion. Still, carriers and equipment vendors’ real concern was — and is now – controlling their costs and getting reimbursement.

Increased government reliance on surveilling wireless data is not merely to exploit murky legality. Government and carriers both know that mobile users increasingly use their phones just for data, email, SMS, web, etc. Actual voice traffic is decreasing or is part of a digital app (Google Talk, etc.). Carriers say they soon will offer data only plans.

Seen in this light, Congress’ geo-location bills – the Geolocation, Privacy and Surveillance Act – are merely a start. (They provide useful limits on data use and require probable cause). These bills also focus on a tree and miss the forest.

What are digital realities in a mobile computing universe? Our data increasingly is in the cloud, stored precisely where? Phones are computers, now with quad cores and 1 and 2 gigabytes of RAM. For example, over a decade ago the Bureau began using roving bugs, cell phone microphones as remote wiretaps. Those implications — of old technology and notions of ‘wiretapping’, when people thought of cell phones as analog phones — are still not widely understood by the public. Activating cameras and recording? Already done, by government and even contractors. Cameras are now ubiquitous in your home, from tablets to PCs/Macs to er, mobile phones.

Fast forward to today. Much of the information government seeks from cellular carriers also exists elsewhere in the cloud – including old fashioned voice conversations. Our information is no longer in one place or even stored on your mobile computer-phone. What rules govern government access to our third party-held cloud data?

Geo-location abuses above are galling but no surprise. It’s depressing that Markey claims he is ‘stunned’. Geo-location legislation would be welcome even if incomplete and missing the point. The advent of mobile cloud based computing means we must re-structre completely law enforcement and National Security Nomenklatura’s role. It’d be nice if Congress found the will to use geo-location to begin the long walk out of the Bush/Obama surveillance night.

Can the Duma be counted on? Doubtful. Minorities, especially in the House, have almost zero agenda-setting power. Even as Chair Markey’s track record in the House is uneven, although his knack for publicity is undeniable.

Is it even Congress’ fault? Facebook and thousands of others teach us privacy is a transactional commodity. Americans daily click away their GPS data without thinking for restaurant deals and spa discounts. Nomenklatura abuses are abstract and complicated. Easier to tune out and return to Angry Birds (which also surveils us screen swipe by swipe).

Does location tracking really bother you? Tell the truth.


  1. Sam Lowry says

    I’m sure most people figure that these kind of tactics by the NYPD (with assistance from the CIA no less) are OK because they keep us safe. Or will never be used against non-brown, non-Muslims in the U.S. As our counter-Enlightenment counter-revolution rolls merrily on, I don’t expect to see our Constitutional scholar POTUS, limited government Tea Partiy types, or a Church Committee delve into or restrain this kind of surveillance. Nor do I expect most people to realize what a scam/sham the whole “war on terrorism” is. If it weren’t for the fact that I haven’t gone to the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, I probably wouldn’t visit NYC just on principle.

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