Even NSA BFF Verizon Thinks Warrantless Location Data Collection May Have Gone Too Far

from the bridge-too-far dept

You’d be hard pressed to find companies more bone-grafted to the nation’s intelligence gathering apparatus than AT&T and Verizon. So much so that it’s often difficult to determine where the government ends, and where the telecom duopoly begins. From Mark Klein highlighting how AT&T was giving the NSA live access to every shred of data that touched the AT&T network, to Snowden’s revelation of Verizon’s handover of customer metadata, these are companies that were not only eager to tap dance around privacy and surveillance law, but actively mocked companies that actually stood up for consumer privacy.

That’s why it’s notable to see one of Verizon’s top lawyers, Craig Silliman, penning an op-ed over at Bloomberg implying that location data hoovering has jumped the shark. Silliman details the problems arising in the age of location data collection, and specifically how four recent district courts have ruled that law enforcement can get location data without a warrant. These rulings relied on the “third-party doctrine,” or the argument that consumers lose privacy protections to this information if they’re willing to share it with a third party — aka Verizon.

But Silliman notes that the cases in question leaned on data collection and networks from 2010 and 2011, before the rise of even more precise small cell (femto) technology, deployed in many areas to shore up tower coverage gaps:

A femto cell may have a cell radius of between 100 feet and 500 feet. Knowing that an individual?s cellphone is within a few hundred feet of a cell obviously is more precise than knowing that it is within a few miles. All of these changes ? particularly, the surge in our customers? use of data and the fact that many of today?s cell sites have smaller ranges ? mean that our network now collects more voluminous and more precise location information than when, in 2010 and 2011, law enforcement obtained the location information that gave rise to the four appellate cases described earlier.

Silliman proceeds to note that he hopes that should these cases stumble toward the Supreme Court, the court will realize the game has changed dramatically in the last half decade:

The defendants in the two location information cases that were decided this Spring are asking the Supreme Court to review their cases and the third-party doctrine. I think it?s a matter of time before the Court takes a case like this and when it does, I hope that it takes into account how quickly technology ? including the volume and precision of location information ? is changing.

Verizon tells The Intercept that while the op-ed comes on the heels of the recent surveillance scandal at Yahoo (soon to be owned by Verizon), the two are not related, and Silliman’s editorial was penned weeks before the news of Yahoo’s e-mail searches surfaced. Silliman claims that Verizon’s motivation here is just an interest in protecting consumer privacy as it collects this data for troubleshooting (and, of course, sale):

Like other carriers, Verizon retains this information to troubleshoot, maximize network efficiency, and for other business purposes. We keep cell site and sector information that we need for these business purposes for one year, while we keep other location information, like multiple location points collected during a data session and the approximate distance a device is from a cell site for eight days.

We take our customers? privacy very seriously, of course, and protect this information carefully.

Well, let’s not go that far. This is the same company that was caught covertly modifying user data packets to track their behavior around the internet, failing to inform customers this was happening or provide working opt-out tools. Verizon’s also actively working to prevent new privacy protections for consumers at the FCC. And again, this is the same company that, hand in hand with AT&T, consistently went above and beyond in handing over vast oceans of data to intelligence services while never challenging the government and actively mocking companies that did.

That said, it’s still amazing to see one of the government’s closest allies on domestic surveillance suggesting that just maybe we’ve taken this whole warrantless hoovering of information thing a little too far.

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Companies: verizon

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Comments on “Even NSA BFF Verizon Thinks Warrantless Location Data Collection May Have Gone Too Far”

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That Guy says:

Verizon just wants legal immunity to betray customers in the future

You will notice that Silliman only called for a single action in that op-ed: that the Supreme Court should “take into account how quickly… technology is changing.” That is pretty vague. What did Silliman mean by it?

Silliman fears only that the Supreme Court might adopt rules, around the “orders” and “warrants” he discusses, which might be inconvenient for Verizon in the future. For example, if the Supreme Court were to rein-in the Third-Party Doctrine, then customers might challenge the way Verizon spies on them and retails their data to advertisers– because legal privacy logic runs both ways: if the government needs a warrant for mobile customer data, it must be private, so how can Verizon just sell it to strangers? (Conversely, if Verizon can just sell customer data, the government can just buy it– no warrant needed.)

Silliman didn’t write a single word advocating privacy-protective law. He just wants the Supreme Court to set down a rule like this: “since technology changes rapidly there can be no bright-line legal rules around privacy of personal information exposed incidentally to the network. All cases regarding orders or warrants or [very commonly] carriers’ ‘voluntary cooperation’ with government agents will be decided piecemeal.” Since lower court judges almost never disappoint the police and the Supreme Court refuses to hear 99% of cases appealed to it, that will ensure Verizon and every alphabet agency in the USA can keep working together to screw network users.

Silent Pocket (profile) says:

Use a Faraday sleeve with your phone is you do not want to be tracked.

It’s wishful thinking hoping that these corporations are going to stop tracking us. Big Brother is worse than anyone could imagine and there’s no sign of it slowing down anytime soon.

The ONLY fail safe way of preventing your phone from being tracked 24/7 is to put it into a Faraday device.

We sell our Faraday products to the US Senate, military, law enforcement, and quite a few alphabet government agencies.


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