Eric Lichtblau, one of the reporting team who exposed President Bush’s warrantless surveillance program, takes a look at its aftermath; with telecoms receiving immunity, police departments feel no compunction against tracking people by their cell phone.
Law enforcement tracking of cellphones, once the province mainly of federal agents, has become a powerful and widely used surveillance tool for local police officials, with hundreds of departments, large and small, often using it aggressively with little or no court oversight, documents show.
The practice has become big business for cellphone companies, too, with a handful of carriers marketing a catalog of “surveillance fees” to police departments to determine a suspect’s location, trace phone calls and texts or provide other services. Some departments log dozens of traces a month for both emergencies and routine investigations.
With cellphones ubiquitous, the police call phone tracing a valuable weapon in emergencies like child abductions and suicide calls and investigations in drug cases and murders. One police training manual describes cellphones as “the virtual biographer of our daily activities,” providing a hunting ground for learning contacts and travels.
If you haven’t seen a movie where the cops track their target through a cell phone, you haven’t seen enough movies. This is seen as a part of modern life.
And yet it’s deeply invasive, especially when it’s done without probable cause. Like many law enforcement tools, it becomes a crutch, a lazy way to advance an investigation without any attention paid to legality. It’s the Taser of surveillance.
One alibi given here is that the technology has zoomed past the law, and police departments simply don’t know where to draw the line. But the Supreme Court recently ruled that police could not attach a GPS device to a suspect’s car and use it to track them without obtaining a warrant. There’s functionally no difference between that and warrantless tracking through a cell phone. So this is unconstitutional behavior being described.
And the telecoms have no problem giving up this information. After all, what did they learn from the FISA scandal? All they had to do was apply the right pressure to Congress, and they obtained retroactive immunity for collaborating with the government on wiretaps and information dumps. So why would they care about the civil liberties issues around cell phone tracking? In fact, this is lucrative business for them:
Cell carriers, staffed with special law enforcement liaison teams, charge police departments from a few hundred dollars for locating a phone to more than $2,200 for a full-scale wiretap of a suspect, records show.
Law enforcement officials maintain that this type of tracking saves lives. And in our law and order society, that may be enough for people to acquiesce. But just the fact that this ongoing behavior has to be exposed by a newspaper, that police departments feel the desire to keep it secret, shows you that they know they are engaging in less-than-legitimate behavior here.
Emptywheel adds some more context about a separate spying program in the UK. The surveillance state is a global phenomenon.