Australian Law Enforcement Agencies Join Their US Colleagues In Obtaining Cell Tower Data Dumps Without A Warrant

from the assume-any-country-with-cell-phones-and-law-enforcement-doing-the-same dept

How much call data do law enforcement agencies need? Here in the US, law enforcement utilize cell tower spoofers, cell tower data dumps and Hemisphere database searches to obtain call data, along with location information and whatever else can be gathered by these tools. These are all deployed without warrants, using the Third Party Doctrine loophole. No expectation of privacy in stored business records means no warrant is necessary.

But this isn’t just an American thing. Other countries with cell towers and same sort of free-range access to “business records” are doing the same thing.

Australian federal and state police are ordering phone providers to hand over personal information about thousands of mobile phone users, whether they are targets of an investigation or not.

Fairfax Media has confirmed Australian law-enforcement agencies are using a technique known as a “tower dump”, which gives police data about the identity, activity and location of any phone that connects to targeted cell towers over a set span of time, generally an hour or two.

Just like in the US, no warrant is required to access the call records of thousands of non-criminals and very little information is being provided as to how long these records are stored or what happens to them once the investigation is closed.

And just like in the US, no one wants to talk about them.

A NSW Police spokesman said it would “not comment” on its “operational capabilities”.

Victoria Police wouldn’t discuss tower dumps either, saying it did not comment on “police methodology”.

And the Australian Federal Police also said it would not comment on its “technical capabilities”.

Local telecoms have been a bit more forthcoming, but the statements lapse into the same rhetoric deployed by those doing the collecting.

“On occasion mobile network operators receive requests from Australian law-enforcement agencies to provide communications information from a specific tower,” a Vodafone spokeswoman told Fairfax. “These requests usually cover short periods and the information provided is only metadata.”

Just metadata.” Just that small thing that can give observers some very deep insight into your personal life, especially if location data is included.

“A request for non-content information on the use of a particular tower during a specified period of time may be lawful under certain circumstances,” a Telstra spokeswoman said.

Well, I would hope that every time Telstra complied, it was only in those “certain circumstances” where it was “lawful.” But if Australian telcos operate like American telcos, they’ve likely gone above and beyond what’s requested several times and likely consider themselves to be “partners” in law enforcement and counterterrorism.

The Australian Attorney General’s office provides a yearly report on law enforcement requests to telcos, but the report is about as useful as the government-hobbled “transparency reports” released by US companies. Cell tower dumps aren’t separated from normal metadata requests and it’s entirely unclear whether dump requests are treated as singular, despite the thousands of people potentially affected. According to the article, over 330,000 metadata requests were made to Australian telcos last year. The Greens Party spokesman for communications, Scott Ludlam, argues this transparency isn’t nearly transparent enough.

“What we need is transparency as to what’s being done and who is doing it,” he said. “Ultimately I think we need a lawful warranting process to start to apply to [requests for data] like this…”

Considering thousands of users are affected by tower dumps, Ludlam argues that they should count for the number of those who are affected.

Providing details like this might result in more pushback from citizens, but it’s more likely these numbers will never be handed over to the general public. Law enforcement agencies have argued for years (mostly successfully) that any sort of transparency about massive collections will expose “methods and means” and compromise not only ongoing investigations, but future investigations as well. And there will always be a certain contingent of legislators and judges who firmly believe that what the public doesn’t know makes them safer.

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Comments on “Australian Law Enforcement Agencies Join Their US Colleagues In Obtaining Cell Tower Data Dumps Without A Warrant”

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That One Guy (profile) says:

A challenge I have yet to see met

Every time the argument of ‘What’s the harm, it’s just metadata?’ is brought up, I can’t help but think, that if they truly believed that, that it was completely harmless and so therefor there’s no need to be concerned when it’s scooped up on a massive scale, every single one of the people making that argument need to either provide their ‘metadata’ to the public, so anyone can browse through it at their leisure, or admit, publicly, that they are lying, and that metadata is anything but ‘harmless’.

HT (profile) says:

Yeah but...

Australia doesn’t really have these kinds of rights enshrined in our constitution. All of our “Freedoms” are only granted via Common Law, with an understanding between everyone that they’re important. If the government want, they can simply allow whatever to happen.

Our constitution literally sets up the Government to do whatever they want. The only rights that are absolutely unchangeable without Citizen intervention are Religious Freedom, Right to Vote (which is forced on us anyway, so it isn’t a real “right” because I can’t actually choose) and Trial by Jury. That’s it in terms of Criminal-related laws.

Australia: the lucky country, except for the Laws – they’re a bit shit.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Yeah but...

You don’t understand the actual Right to Vote situation in Australia then.

In a nutshell, you have a number of means to vote your preferences, including any invalid vote which is technically classified as illegal but for which you cannot be prosecuted for.

Firstly, the only requirement under the law that you have to do is have your name crossed off the electoral role to say that you have cast your vote. This means you have to appear in the electoral process. The only exception is if you have a strongly held view against voting at all and there is a standard process to this as well. What you do after that is up to you. As your vote is completely private, no action can be taken against you for how you vote. If anyone attempts to see what you have done, then they face the courts for inference into your vote (big No No).

So you can “donkey vote”, you can choose who you want in the order you want, you can cast an invalid vote as a protest (this is classified illegal, however as your vote is unknown, it can never be determined that is what you have done). You don’t even have to fill out the voting forms, but this is not a good idea as it can then be filled out by others. This “voting process” can be done weeks in advance or on the day. Again the only legal requirement is getting your name crossed off.

As a citizen, you have both a responsibility and the privilege to vote. It has taken much effort over the years to allow this be available to all the different groups within our society. Equally, you have the right (unless incarcerated at Her Majesty’s Pleasure) to stand in any election in the electorate in which you reside, irrespective of party affiliation or independence.

Unlike the USA, we do have a broader political environment due to our system of voting. But like a lot of places, it is less than perfect.

Australia is a pretty laid back place, but the politicians do forget that you can push the people only so far before they will get up and fight. The fight may be as simple as giving the reigning party a boot up the backside as they push them out of power. We’ve seen it with the Liberal/National Party Coalition and we have seen it with the Labour Party.

The basic fact is that pretty much every political party in Australia has lost touch with the people of Australia.

Additionally, it is the bureaucracy that controls most of the legislation that is generated. It allows the Parliament to think they are in control but really only gives the Parliament some say in what is done. This will generally in the areas where the politicians have their mates pay for influence – trade agreements or tax rates etc.

Kronomex (profile) says:

Oh gosh, I get all a quiver at Tony and his cronies are helping to protect me from the “evils” of the world. Too bad it’s quivering in fear that these travesties of justice are being perpetrated by the very people that are running the country. I almost feel physically ill when I hear politicians use the word transparency in any given sentence.

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