What this report makes clear is that mobile data requests are becoming as routine as full body frisks and Miranda warnings for law enforcement. What isn't clear are the rules law enforcement agencies are following when they make these requests, which are likely to vary wildly from one jurisdiction to the next.
For example, what constitutes an "emergency request," and who gets to decide? Based on this report, it seems like that's up to the lawyers at the wireless firms. I can see a future where the number of police requests continues to climb, and wireless carriers will simply comply with all requests because it's easier and cheaper.
What happens to this information after the cops request it? How is it stored and for how long? Data retention policies for wireless companies range from a few days to seven years; what kind of policies do the cops have?
How can we find out if our mobile data has been requested? What can we do to expunge it if it gets into the public record? I doubt most local police departments have any kind of process around this.
Under what circumstances can the cops obtain a cell tower dump, and what happens to the privacy of all the mobile subscribers who happened to be near that tower but are not under suspicion? Or does mere proximity to an alleged criminal act now constitute suspicion?
I also want to know how many of these requests were for location data, and in what circumstances; how many were for calling records; and how many were for the content of texts or other mobile data, such as Web surfing histories or address books. The report raises many more questions than it answers.
There's always been an uneasy balance between ensuring our individual liberties while giving the cops the tools they need to protect us -- or at least, punish offenders after the fact. It's a problem that's only been exacerbated by technology, starting with the rotary phone.
But now the cops no longer need to break into your house and plant listening devices, or even sit in an unmarked van down the street watching your front door. If they want to spy on you, they can just go to your wireless company. And there's virtually nothing any of us can do to stop them.
Who will protect us from the people we pay to protect us? Weigh in below or email me: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article, "They know who you called last summer," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter.