Senators Ask Ingelligence Boss If He Thinks He Can Track People's Phone Locations

from the hint-hint-hint dept

Back in May, Senators Ron Wyden and Mark Udall revealed that the federal government apparently was interpreting the Patriot Act in a way that seemed at odds with the plain language of the act. Of course, Wyden and Udall couldn’t reveal what they meant directly, since they only knew about it from their work on the Senate Intelligence Committee… but they sure could hint at it. It didn’t take long for people to suggest that the issue had to do with how the feds interpreted their ability to get phone geolocation data on pretty much everyone without a warrant. That still hasn’t been confirmed, but the Senators are hinting very strongly that that’s exactly what’s happening. They’ve sent a letter to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, which asks, point blank:

Do government agencies have the authority to collect the geolocation information of American citizens for intelligence purposes?

If yes, please explain the specific statutory basis for this authority. And to the extent that this statutory basis imposes any procedural requirements, such as judicial review or approval by particular officials, please describe these requirements.

If no, please explain the statutory basis for this prohibition.

It’s not too difficult to read between the lines here. If the government has reinterpreted the Patrtiot Act to allow such tracking, shouldn’t it say so?

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Comments on “Senators Ask Ingelligence Boss If He Thinks He Can Track People's Phone Locations”

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Atkray (profile) says:

Dear Senators Wyden and Udall,

Inasmuch as the current legislation permits collection of information then the government collects information.

In cases where current legislation does not permit collection of such information the the government does not collect information.

We fail to see the confusion.

Sincerely, The Government.

P.S. In matters of national security we can not comment regarding our actions.

Anonymous Coward says:

Well, here perhaps is another way to look at it.

We were discussing Google the other day, and data collected about wifi and data transmitted on those wifi networks. Most of the people here argue that it is a “radio transmission”, and therefore public.

Now, if you have a cellular phone, and it is turned on, is it not also a public broadcast? Think carefully now, because it is no more digitally encoded than your wifi.

You can’t have it both ways, even if you want to.

Jim O (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Interesting point AC.

I personally leave a WiFi unlocked in the hopes that someone might happen upon it and find it useful. When Google’s van drove by I hope they stopped for a while and checked their email – or used it however they saw fit. If the feds wanted to do the same, I wouldn’t mind (or I couldn’t complain anyway). Having my WiFi open is (in my mind) an open invitation for anyone passing by to use it.

My cell phone is another story. You are correct that the device broadcasts publicly, but it uses protocols that are designed with security/privacy in mind. For someone to make any use of the broadcasted radio transmission they would have to overcome more than one measure designed to keep me anonymous.

I know I haven’t made a legal argument, mostly because I know nothing of the relevant laws. In my mind it is about intent: I choose to let anyone use my WiFi, so I can’t complain if Google or the Feds or whomever wants to use it. With cell phones I choose not to enable tracking (Latitude, etc) and I assume that the security measures aren’t being overcome by anyone.

HothMonster says:

Re: Re:

“Can others listen to my cellular phone calls?

Yes, depending on the phone system’s technical features. Cellular phone calls usually are not picked up by electronic devices such as radios and baby monitors. But analog cell phone transmissions can be received by radio scanners, particularly older model scanners and those that have been illegally altered to pick up analog cell phone communications. Analog cell phones have largely been replaced by digital technologies, which are more secure, more efficient and provide better quality.

With advances in digital technology, wireless voice communications are much more difficult to intercept than analog phones. The digital signal that is received by a standard radio scanner is undecipherable and sounds like the noise made by a modem or fax machine when transmitting over phone lines. Law enforcement-grade scanners can monitor digital communications, but these are expensive and generally not available on the open marketplace.

What technical features should I look for in cell phones to protect my privacy?

As with cordless phones, digital cell phones are more secure than analog phones by default. Phone conversations on digital phones cannot be picked up by the kinds of radio scanners used by casual hobbyists. Nonetheless, there are features you should consider regarding digital phone security.

Digital communications that are encrypted provide the highest security. Several digital technologies are available in the U.S., primarily CDMA and GSM. But few carriers here encrypt digital transmissions, in contrast to Europe.

In the U.S., CDMA systems use spread spectrum technology (SST) to provide strong security, difficult to intercept except by law enforcement and skilled technicians. CDMA stands for code division multiple access. CDMA carriers include Sprint and Verizon Wireless.

GSM means Global System for Mobile Communications. GSM is more common in Europe, but some U.S. carriers are converting to it. GSM carriers include AT&T and T-Mobile.

3G and 4G refer to wireless technologies which offer increased capacity and capabilities delivered over digital wireless networks.”

Raptor85 (user link) says:

Re: Re: Re:

If you’re really worried about your phone conversation being intercepted also, make sure your phone is set to require encryption. (not all phones allow forcing it, but some smartphones do) I won’t go into 100% details here, but the juice of it is that your phone respects whatever the closest tower tells it, so someone can literally broadcast to your phone to tell it “turn off encryption” if it’s not required by your phone firmware. Look up a video from defcon this last year if you want to learn more on that, it was pretty cool being there and watching my friend’s iPhone suddenly show the “defcon” logo instead of the AT&T one 😀

Unlikely to be used against you, yes, but just throwing it out there that it’s not just older analog phones at risk of being intercepted.

MrWilson says:

Re: Re:

The key difference is the intent. A cellphone is used by a single person for private communication.

A wireless router is built with the purpose of allowing multiple people to access data services if the owner of the router so chooses.

A person accessing an open router can’t assume the owner didn’t intend for the router to be shared.

A person snooping on your cellphone traffic should assume that you intended for your cellphone traffic to be private.

BeamStretcher (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

I think you’re the closest. I think the AC is a beam stretcher.

The comparison on technical grounds though accurate does not account for the fact that a person, behind the cell phone, is readily located, tracked and logged. The wi-fi is just kind of sort of really just sitting there. You can track the internet with wi-fi. You can track the person with the phone. Which one do you think smells like danger? I think I know which one I’d fight for. We’re twisted.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Why? You are thinking very one sided.

Your laptop / netbook / portable web thing all have wi-fi in them, and that wi-fi is often set on to “seek” new connections. By definition, they transmit, and in Wi-fi. Is it okay to track that, but not the cell phone?

In simple terms, explain to me the difference between a radio transmission and a radio transmission.

txpatriot (profile) says:

The third question doesn’t make any sense (I guess it was written by the same idiot who wrote Masnick’s headline for this article):

The ABSENCE of any stutory authority to collect geolocation data =/= the PRESENCE of statutory prohibition against such data collection.

OTOH, this should come as no surprise: I don’t expect elected representatives to understand logic, anymore than I expect the technorati to be able to spell . . .

HothMonster says:

Re: Re: Re:


I rest my case”

Was your case that you are bad at spelling? I don’t get it you are the only one who spelled it that way. Or where you just cracking a joke about complaining about mistakes and making a mistake?(i realized this possibility right before post)

I don’t see what your problem is with the question and its a logical question to ask (if dealing with a politician).

“If no, please explain the statutory basis for this prohibition. “

No, no regulation exists that gives us this right and lacking statutory authority doing so would violate the 4th amendment. (or what not)
No, XXX regulation specifically blocks us from doing so.

You ask this to prevent them from saying NO and doing it anyway because now they have provided their own reason why they can not.

If you don’t ask this the answer is:
No we have not been given the authority (but we are going to do it anyway because we have not been expressly blocked from doing it) [with the parenthesis part, obviously, going unspoken)

Unfortunately when dealing with politicians you always ask both sides of the question to avoid one word answers and avoid them saying, well nothing tells us we can but we never said we couldn’t either, MUWHAHAHAHAHAHAH.

txsurrenders says:

Re: Re:

txpatriotism clearly doesn’t extend to the laws of the land. There are numerous statutory prohibitions against general date collection by law enforcement authorities. The ABSENCE of statutory authority to collect geolocation data does, in fact, equal a prohibition on collecting such data under current law.

Obviously it would be far easier for law enforcement if they could just do whatever they liked, but, as any true American patriot knows, we have a Constitution and laws that spring from it to define the powers of government; government has no inherent authority.

I guarantee you that the lawyers at Senate legislative counsel could wipe the floor with your in any test, be it logic, spelling, or general intelligence – even if some of them are Texans.

bugmenot (profile) says:

your location is no secret!

It is legal to follow you everywhere you go. Thus, determining the location of someone is trivial. What is wrong with following someone’s tracks? If you ride your horse into the forest, anyone can track you because you left tracks. Today’s tracks are electronic! That’s progress. If you carry electronics it can be tracked any number of ways. If you don’t want to be tracked, turn your stuff off and don’t ride horses!

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