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Obama Administration Seeks To Strip Cellphone Users of Privacy Protections

  1. chillinwill
    Should the government be allowed to track a person's movements based on cell phone records, without evidence of criminal wrongdoing?

    A showdown on the issue unfolded Friday in a federal appeals court in Philadelphia, as the Justice Department battled electronic-privacy groups.

    The privacy groups say the information could reveal when someone goes to a religious service, medical clinic or political rally, or is having an extramarital affair. Third U.S. Circuit Judge Dolores Sloviter seemed to share that concern.

    "You know there are governments in the world that would like to know where some of their people are or have been," Sloviter challenged Justice Department lawyer Mark Eckenwiler, an associate director of criminal enforcement operations.

    "Can the government assure us that it will never try to find out these things?" she asked. "Don't we have to be concerned about this? Not this government right now, but a government?"

    Law enforcement agencies hope to obtain cell phone location data from cellular providers without first showing probable cause of a crime - and without the customer's knowledge. The data comes from cell phone towers, and in densely populated cities can pinpoint a person's location to within a few hundred yards.

    The issue is not whether the government can obtain the information, but whether a probable-cause warrant should be required first.

    "An individual has no Fourth Amendment-protected privacy interest in business records, such as cell-site usage information, that are kept, maintained and used by a cell phone company," Eckenwiler wrote in his brief.

    Sloviter countered by asking Eckenwiler why there was a need to skip a probable-cause showing, saying that she knew no magistrates reluctant to grant search warrant applications.

    He replied that the relevant law does not require them. Eckenwiler said probable-cause warrants are only needed to obtain the contents of electronic communications, such as a text or e-mail, or to wiretap a phone. He believes the 1986 Electronics Communications Privacy Act allows police to obtain "non-content" data without a warrant.

    After Friday's hearing, Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chief author of the 1986 law, said his committee would revisit the legislation this year.

    "The question of how best to protect these digital communications, while providing law enforcement with the tools that it needs to keep us safe, has no simple answer. But, what is clear is that our federal electronic privacy laws are woefully outdated," Leahy said in a statement.

    The appeal heard Friday stems from a Pittsburgh drug-trafficking case, in which the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives sought the data as an investigative tool because the suspects frequently changed vehicles and residences.

    Magistrate Lisa Pupo Lenihan denied the 2008 request, calling the information "extraordinarily personal and potentially sensitive."

    The Electronic Frontier Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union asked that Lenihan's ruling stand.

    Eckenwiler challenged the notion that government access to location data would turn a person's phone into a "tracking device." He said the ATF was only seeking past cell phone use in the drug case.

    However, a professor of cyberspace law called the distinction negligible. Police could ask a cell phone provider for historical data and then ask again a month later - thereby achieving the same end, argued Susan Freiwald, a University of San Francisco law professor.

    "Most cell phone users would be unpleasantly surprised, if not outraged, to learn that a law enforcement agent could gain access to their location information without first obtaining a warrant based on a showing of probable cause," she wrote in a "friend of the court" brief.

    Sloviter is joined on the three-judge panel by Judge R. Jane Roth, who was absent from the bench Friday, and visiting 9th Circuit Judge A. Wallace Tashima. The judges suspended the usual 30-minute time limit for oral arguments, extending the session to 80 minutes.

    Tashima questioned Freiwald's contention that the phone-location data lets police invade the privacy of the home. Freiwald believes the information can suggest when people are home, when they are awake and who might be with them.

    "We should be able to use our cell phones without them creating a virtual map of our movements and associations," Freiwald argued.

    February 12, 2010
    Associated Press


  1. Raoul duke420
    Fucking insane, talk about an invasion of privacy. Swim is pretty sure the nsa is already randomly eavsdropping on telecommunications..
  2. gonegrowin
    I wouldnt be surprised if they already do this. I used to embrace technology, but know i am becoming somewhat fearful and hesistant to use new things for this very reason.
  3. Harryfungletrumpet
    I cant post links, but here is something interesting I found a couple of months ago:

    Police Tapped Sprint Customer GPS Data 8 Million Times In A Year

    Under a new system set up by Sprint, law enforcement agencies have gotten GPS data from the company about its wireless customers 8 million times in about a year, raising a host of questions about consumer privacy, transparency, and oversight of how police obtain location data.

    What this means -- and what many wireless customers no doubt do not realize -- is that with a few keystrokes, police can determine in real time the location of a cell phone user through automated systems set up by the phone companies.

    And while a Sprint spokesman told us customers can shield themselves from surveillance by simply switching off the GPS function of their phones, one expert told TPM that the company and other carriers almost certainly have the power to remotely switch the function back on.

    To be clear, you can think of there being two types of GPS (global positioning system). One is the handy software on your mobile device that tells you where you are and helps give driving directions. But there's also GPS capability in all cell phones sold today, required by a federal regulation so if you dial 911 from an unknown location, authorities can find you.

    Sprint says the 8 million requests represent "thousands" of individual customers -- it won't say how many exactly -- and that the company follows the law. It's not clear, however, if warrants are always needed, or whether they have been obtained by police for all the cases.

    We know the 8 million number thanks to an Indiana University graduate student named Christopher Soghoian, who has made headlines before for investigations of privacy and tech issues.

    At a recent professional security conference attended -- and taped -- by Soghoian, Sprint Manager of Electronic Surveillance Paul Taylor revealed the 8 million figure. "[T]he tool has just really caught on fire with law enforcement," he said:

    We turned it on the web interface for law enforcement about one year ago last month, and we just passed 8 million requests. So there is no way on earth my team could have handled 8 million requests from law enforcement, just for GPS alone. So the tool has just really caught on fire with law enforcement. They also love that it is extremely inexpensive to operate and easy
    It's useful to keep in mind that, as Sprint spokesman Matt Sullivan tells TPM, "every wireless carrier has a team and a system" through which police can access GPS data. Sprint is the company unlucky enough to find itself the focus of scrutiny, but it reportedly controls just 18% of the U.S. wireless market, making it the third largest carrier.

    Sprint says the 8 million figure "should not be shocking given that Sprint has more than 47 million customers and requests from law enforcement and public safety agencies" include missing person cases, criminal investigations, or cases with the consent of the customer. (Read the company's full statement here.)

    Privacy advocates, though, are alarmed. "How many innocent Americans have had their cell phone data handed over to law enforcement?" asked Kevin Bankston, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, in a lengthy response to the revelation. He goes on:

    How can the government justify obtaining so much information on so many people, and how can the telcos justify handing it over? ...
    What legal process was used to obtain this information? ...

    What exactly has the government done with all of that information? Is it all sitting in an FBI database somewhere?

    Bankston calls on Congress "to pull the curtain back on the vast, shadowy world of law enforcement surveillance and shine a light on these abuses."

    Sullivan, the Sprint spokesman, tells TPM that for certain requests the police pay a fee to Sprint to cover costs. But it's not just a question of paying an entry fee to access the system; Sullivan says there's a legal process. "Before [law enforcement] can access any customer data, they have to show proper legal demand," and "the parameters of the information they can receive is extremely specific, including the duration they can look at it and the specific data."

    It's not clear, according to EFF, that "proper legal demand" always means a search warrant.

    Julian Sanchez of the Cato Institute has chimed in with a look at the current state of the relevant law, including the 2005 reauthorization of the PATRIOT act. He concludes that it's "quite likely that it's become legally easier to transform a cell phone into a tracking device even as providers are making it point-and-click simple to log into their servers and submit automated location queries."

    Another key question: can customers disable the GPS on their wireless devices? Sprint's Sullivan says its his "understanding" that privacy settings on phones can be set to turn off GPS, in which case, he says, police trying to conduct surveillance would not be able to track a phone.

    But Jeff Fischbach, a California-based forensic technologist who has been a technical consultant on many criminal cases over the years, tells TPM he's seen empirical evidence that the privacy settings are essentially meaningless. Again and again, he says, "I've seen GPS data from defendants who told me [the function] was switched off."

    Saying there's nothing technically sophisticated about switching on GPS capability remotely, Fischbach observes that if it's really possible to switch off GPS on a phone, "it would almost be like saying license plates are optional."

    We may be getting more answers soon. With buzz growing around Soghoian's report, first posted on his blog, Sprint has been forced to respond publicly. Fischbach believes it's only a matter of time before the company is forced to make more disclosures to the public.

    "Sprint's going to have to calm people down," he says.

    Justin Elliot
    Dec. 4 2009
  4. gonegrowin
    Ive heard that the only way to fully disable this GPS tracking is to remove the power source (battery). I believe it still works even if the phone is off so long as the battery is in.
  5. Motorhead
    Please note that the way we post news has changed, because of our main news page.

    The most important changes are:

    * Articles are no longer posted in quotes.
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    Harryfungletrumpet, could you please pm me the link to this article so I can properly format it for you.
  6. Harryfungletrumpet
    ^^ yeah they were saying it could be a possibility for the network to activate gps remotely. I think this will be abused whether acknowledged or not. SWIM is aware of programs on a bluetooth capable laptop that can remotely activate a call on a phone to listen in on conversations. Not to mention copy all contacts, messages etc. Be safe, big brother has the capability to watch.
  7. Greenport
    Maybe we should all go back to the standard house telephone :p
  8. missparkles
    If you have a passport, credit cards, or use most city (and most town) roads, they already know where you are. And most cars (new ones) do have tracking devices. I can see a subtle difference between what you say (as in electronic mail) as opposed to where you are. To be honest I have no problem with anyone knowing my location, only time I'd worry is if I were somewhere I wasn't supposed to be.;)

    As Greenport has said, the only way to go back to partial anonymity is to give up some of the appliances we consider essential in today's world. Anyone wanna start using cash, not using a cell phone, and go back to using public transport? Progress isn't always good, there are always drawbacks.

    Sparkles. :vibes:
  9. sirmoonie
    To the contrary, there is nothing private about where you happen to be located at a point in time. This is the electronic version of taking a person's photograph around to shops in the area and asking merchants if they have seen the person.
  10. Terrapinzflyer
    Unless I'm mistaken the long held standard (in the US) has been "A Reasonable expectation of privacy" . Of course- this has been up to court interpertation and has not always been when some, or even most, people would interpert as "reasonable"
  11. sirmoonie
    My understanding is that is the standard as well.

    So the issue is whether a person walking around with a cell phone pinging off towers belonging to a publicly traded company that she or he signed a contract with, believes they are doing so privately. It's similar to walking down the street and expecting anyone who sees where you are to keep that information private.
  12. chilliker
    SWIM thinks they are already doing this and have been doing this for some time, they are just coming out with it now... Why? Don't know...
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