Last year, telecommunications companies were paid $26 million by local police agencies in return for info on U.S. citizens. Is America moving ever closer to a Police State? Many people are worried that we are doing just that, including US Senator Edward Markey (D-MA).
Senator Markey’s investigation has shown that the megabucks the police paid to telecommunication companies bought them metadata, location information, and in some cases the content of their customers’ messages. Is it time for you to switch providers?
How many US citizens did the law enforcement agencies target?
The government targeted at least 1.1 million mobile phone customers last year. Also, law enforcement officers had access to the dumps from a whopping 9,000 cell towers. This gave them the ability to access all of the logged numbers within the range of each base station.
The telecommunications companies profited handsomely from the arrangement, with T-Mobile reported as doing the best, earning $11 million. At&T raked in approximately $10,298,000, and Verizon also benefited, earning almost $5 million.
Christopher Calabrese, a legislative counsel for the ACLU, believes that a major problem is that the legislation in place now to protect privacy rights of individuals hasn’t “evolved.” It doesn’t (yet) cover mobile devices and the information contained within them. A warrant is generally all that it takes for law enforcement agencies to secure the information they want, though a bit of cash helps grease the wheels, also.
What Senator Markey, and others, are calling for is an updated version of the 4th. amendment, which is meant to guarantee to American citizens the right to privacy. Markey wants to move legislation forward that will update the 4th. amendment and protect the information of U.S. citizens and their right to privacy.
The numbers of telecommunications customers investigated by the police appears to have gone down from 2011, when law enforcement officials requested 1.3 million records. However, Senator Markey believes that the numbers from last year are underreported.
For instance, Sprint didn’t provide him with any figures, saying that it depended on how the requests were counted. If telecommunications companies like Sprint don’t provide records, it doesn’t, of course, mean that records don’t exist.
According to Senator Markey, “When law enforcement access location information, it as sensitive and personal as searching an individual’s home and should be treated commensurately.”
Besides the lack of figures from Sprint, according to Senator Markey, if the cell tower dumps are included, the number of U.S. citizens who the police have requested information on could increase by tens of thousands. According to a report in USA Today, a quarter of law enforcement agencies have obtained information from such cell tower dumps.
The investigation by USA Today also brought to light that Stingray devices are owned by 25 police departments. Stingray devices are suitcase-sized machines that act like cell towers. Police can use them to intercept conversations and track the location of cell phone users.
There were 36 police agencies that did not comment on whether they have used Stingray devices or asked for cell phone tower dump information. These devices intercept the data from every cell phone within a mile range. The use of Stingrays is usually kept secret. No clear regulations are currently in place limiting their use.
The information requests to telecommunications companies have come from local police officials, and the 1.1 million figure doesn’t include national security-related or NSA investigations.
According to AT&T, they only denied 1,300 of 297,500 requests by police for information. Verizon said that they don’t keep track of the data that they provide to police officials.
Local police officials have the rights, currently, to collect a wide range of information from U.S. citizens, and they clearly love to make use of their rights. Sometimes the information that they gather is used to capture criminals who should be taken off the streets and imprisoned. However, more and more, questions are being raised as to when the right of the police to obtain information violates the right of American citizens to privacy.
Written by: Douglas Cobb