7 Months Of Warrantless 'Just Metadata' Paints A Clear Picture Of Your Personal Life

from the anyone-still-believe-this-info-shouldn't-be-protected? dept

The ACLU (along with the EFF and many others) has filed an amicus brief in a case of warrantless cell location tracking currently being considered by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals. It cites the obvious similarity between this and the U.S. vs. Jones decision, in which the justices concluded that a person’s privacy is violated by long-term tracking of their movements.

In that case, a GPS device was attached to a vehicle. In this one, the privacy implications run much deeper.

People carry their cell phones with them all the time. Each time a cell phone makes or receives a call or text message, the wireless provider logs the cell towers the phone connected to during that communication. Cell phone tracking therefore allows the government to reach back into the past and pull up a record of where we have been on any given day.

Lest we forget, this is the same sort of supposedly harmless, non-identifying “metadata” the NSA and FBI are collecting on millions of cell phone users every day, thanks to a very obliging FISA court. In the Jones case, the justices concurring opinion agreed with the appeals court in finding that the long-term tracking (in this case, 28 days) violated the Fourth Amendment. One wonders what this court will make of this warrantless tracking, which ran for nearly ten times as long.

In the case, United States v. Graham, the government obtained a staggering 221 days of historical cell site location information for two suspects. For one suspect, Aaron Graham, this timespan allowed the government to sweep up his location at 29,659 specific points.

The amount of information that can be culled from these data points easily exceeds anything law enforcement should reasonably expect to obtain without a warrant. Aaron Graham worked with his provider and the ACLU in order to provide it with the same tracking information law enforcement had acquired. Here’s what the ACLU found.

Mr. Graham’s wife was pregnant during the records period. 29 calls during business hours began or ended in the sector where Mr. Graham’s wife’s OB/GYN’s office is located, allowing the inference that they were at the doctor’s office at these times.

The most frequently occurring cell site and sector in Mr. Graham’s records is the closest sector and tower to his home – nearly a third of all of his calls were placed or received in this sector. Of those 4,917 calls, 77 started in his home sector and ended elsewhere and 226 started elsewhere and ended when he was at home, providing information about his patterns of movements to and from home.

From July 10 to July 15, 2010, Mr. Graham’s last call of the night and first call of the morning were either or both placed from his home sector, allowing the inference that he slept at home those evenings. However, on July 9, Mr. Graham’s last call of the night and first call of the next morning were placed from a cell sector 30 minutes from his house. Although we have no reason to believe it to be the case here, this information could reveal private information about the status of a person’s relationships and any infidelities.

The ACLU points out that technological advancements have made it easier for law enforcement and others to easily collect large amounts of data on any person, making the protections of the Fourth Amendment more important than ever. Just because millions voluntarily use products and services utilizing invasive technology doesn’t mean they’re implicitly waiving their right to privacy. Nor should it be assumed the use of a cell phone means the “expectation of privacy” is no longer valid.

Once again, it appears law enforcement’s m.o. is “do it until someone makes you stop.” One wonders what sort of information can be both so vital as to be obtained without the hassle of a warrant, yet still so elusive it could only be ascertained by gathering two-thirds of year’s worth of location info. Hopefully, the court will find along the lines of the Jones decision, and continue rebuilding the protections the Fourth Amendment was written to provide.

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Comments on “7 Months Of Warrantless 'Just Metadata' Paints A Clear Picture Of Your Personal Life”

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21 Comments
Ninja (profile) says:

I wonder, is there anyway of erasing information on towers, wireless networks and gps data on a phone? I know you can trick your apps into thinking you are elsewhere using developer tools but I don’t think it would work with local data such as towers and wireless networks I guess.

Anybody with good knowledge on that to give us a brief explanation on that? Along with that Heml.is encrypted messaging app maybe we will see something in the lines of erasing or hiding that kind of info?

silverscarcat (profile) says:

You hope too much...

You really think that even if the courts DO find the stuff the NSA has been doing illegal that the government won’t continue to do it anyway?

They’ll just “interpret the law” secretly again and continue to do it.

The United States should just change the name of the country to the Police States of America where you have no freedoms or liberties at all already.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: You hope too much...

“The United States should just change the name of the country to the Police States of America where you have no freedoms or liberties at all already.”

Are you looking for ‘The Policed States of America Inc. (TM) (c) (R)’?

Don’t forget, we stand “for the children” and against “porn” and “terrorists” with “no rights reserved”.

Anonymous Coward says:

In the Jones case, the justices found that tracking a person for 28 days violated his the Fourth Amendment.

Wow. That’s incredibly misleading. The Court found it to be a search because of the trespass. The majority opinion DID NOT consider the duration of the tracking to be relevant. Nice try, Techdirt.

Capitalist Lion Tamer (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Well, I’ll be damned. Sometimes you’re right.

That was the concurring opinion which followed the lead of the appeals court, which found that long-term surveillance was a problem. Of course, the definition of “long-term” is still undecided, and that opinion pretty much concluded there’s no way to set a time limit that would be reasonable across the board.

Anonymous Coward says:

Replying to post 1:

The cellphone towers keep their own server logs, recording which devices connect to it. Every device that connects has a Unique Subscriber ID number.

The cellular tower can also tell how far away from the tower you are physically located, because cellular signals are created using radio waves (microwaves actually), and radio waves travel at a finite speed. The speed of light.

So the tower can send your cell phone a radio signal and measure how long it takes to get a reply back. This is known as latency or ping time. If you know how fast light travels (radio waves) you can calculate the distance a person is from a cellphone tower using their signals latency/ping_time measurements. It’s probably not possible to tell if that person is North, South, East, or West of the tower, but how far away they are from the tower none the less.

If you cell phone connects to three or more towers in the same area, it’s now possible for technicians to take 3 separate latency/ping_time readings and triangulate your position to within less than a mile of your current location.

GPS isn’t even required.

Ninja (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Thanks for the tips. Think about the absurd phone warrantless seizing and search in the UK for instance. They probably can’t go for the telcos to get the tower info but the phone itself will have info stored on antennas. I was thinking about how to avoid such scrutiny. Any leads?

and radio waves travel at a finite speed. The speed of light.

I thought that was valid in a vacuum only? But you can do that alright much like that tech guy defaced the North Korea prank that TPB crew played a while back using the latency between the hops. Granted there were a few tricks in that since the light doesn’t flow in a single direction in the fibers.

Grae (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

The “in a vaccuum” statement is essentially another way of saying “in perfect conditions with no other interfering materials, radio waves (which include the microwave spectrum) will travel at the speed of light.”

This is why the statement above yours says the triangulation accuracy using this method is “within less than a mile of your current location.” Because if there are conductive materials in the path of the radio signal, they’ll slow the radio signal based on the Permeability and Permittivity of the material. And “within less than a mile” probably assumes a certain number of things in the environment slowing the radio signal; e.g.: the steel frames of buildings. If this was performed in a vacuum with no objects in the path between the phone and towers, the accuracy would probably be closer to within 10 meters if not 1 meter.

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