Betrayed by bits: Your cellphone, their spy

The news of U.S. law enforcement's widespread mobile snooping did not sit well with Cringely's readers

My post last week about how often U.S. law enforcement agencies request data from wireless providers ("They know who you called last summer") sparked quite a reaction here in Cringeville.

As I noted in the piece, the nine wireless companies polled by Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) estimated that law enforcement made some 1.3 million requests in 2011, ranging from call records to the content of text messages to full-blown wire(less) taps. The real number of subscribers whose data got shared could be much higher, depending on how many cell tower dumps were requested. I also noted that taxpayers foot the bill for these searches, via monies paid out by the cops to the carriers; AT&T alone billed more than $8 million for such services last year.

[ Check out Cringely's earlier post, "They know who you called last summer," for a full rundown of the original report. | For a humorous take on the tech industry's shenanigans, subscribe to Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter. | Get the latest insight on the tech news that matters from InfoWorld's Tech Watch blog. ]

Apparently I was not the only person a little perturbed by our government's eagerness to to spy on our mobiles. I got letters from several Cringesters with strong opinions on the matter. I thought I'd share a few of them here. R.J.N. writes:

Requiring carriers to notify users of the records searched and the information that was shared ... might make the feds think twice before requesting so much, so often, so privately! I see this as a definite violation of an individual's rights.

He adds that when he asked Sprint for help in locating his phone when it went missing, he was told that they could only give this information out to the police and only in situations that were life-threatening. Seems like that wasn't the whole truth, now was it?

H.H. asked how many of those 1.3 million searches were requested via a subpoena or other court order, as the Fourth Amendment requires. Good question -- after filing that post last week, I found a link to all of the responses to Rep. Markey from the nine wireless companies. They vary a lot in terms of specificity; most of them did not break out which requests were made for emergency purposes (such as an e911 location request) and which were made as part of a criminal or other legal matter.

But AT&T's letter [PDF] did. Of the 260,000 or so requests for mobile data, some 180,000 were in response to a subpoena or other court order; the rest were emergency requests. Assuming that percentage holds across the other carriers, that would mean about 70 percent of the 1.3 million data searches were accompanied by a court order.

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