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What Your Cell Phone Company Is Telling the Government About You

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May 22, 2012

It’s time for cell phone companies to be up front with customers about how their personal information – including their location history and who they call and text with – is being collected, stored, and shared with the government. In an op-ed on, ACLU attorney Catherine Crump argues that wireless carriers – “who we pay to provide a service, not to keep tabs on us for the government” – must let customers know what is happening with this sensitive information:

What little has come to light so far about the companies’ practices does not paint a comforting picture. Addressing a surveillance industry conference in 2009, Sprint’s electronic surveillance manager revealed that the company had received so many requests for location data that it set up a website where the police could conveniently access the information from the comfort of their desks. In just a 13-month period, he said, the company had provided law enforcement with 8 million individual location data points. Other than Sprint, we do not have even this type of basic information about the frequency of requests for any of the other cell phone companies.

The poorly understood relationship between cell phone companies and police raises grave privacy concerns. Like the companies, law enforcement agencies have a strong incentive to keep what is actually happening a secret, lest the public find out and demand new legal protections. More than 10 years ago, the Justice Department convinced the House of Representatives to abandon legislation that would have required law enforcement agencies to compile similar statistics, arguing that it would turn “crime fighters into bookkeepers.”

The excessive secrecy has frustrated the ability of the American people to have an informed debate on just how much information police should have access to without judicial oversight or having to show probable cause. It has also prevented Congress and the courts from effectively addressing these intrusive surveillance powers. That is not how our system of government is supposed to work.

The results of a public records request by the ACLU and its affiliates nationwide released last month show that hundreds of police departments routinely use cell phone location tracking data. But, as Crump writes, “As far as the cellphone companies are concerned, the less Americans know about it the better.” That needs to change. You can read the full op-ed here.

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