Senator Franken Questions Legality Of DOJ Having Mobile Operators Reveal Where People Are

from the that-ol'-4th-amendment-thing dept

It's long been known that law enforcement relies heavily on mobile phone providers to give them data on where people are, based on the location info on their mobile devices. Back in 2009, a Freedom of Information Act request revealed, for example, that Sprint had provided law enforcement officials with GPS data a staggering 8 million times in the previous year. Now, it's important to note that many of those times were apparently multiple "pings" on the same person/device. But, still. You can bet those numbers have only gone up. Last year, Senator Wyden proposed legislation requiring that law enforcement get a warrant. He has also hinted strongly at the idea that part of the government's secret interpretation of the PATRIOT Act involves access to location info on just about anyone with a mobile device.

It appears that others are taking some interest in the possibility of widespread government tracking without a warrant as well. Senator Al Franken has sent a letter to Attorney General Holder asking some pretty pointed questions about how frequently the government gets location data from mobile service providers, and what legal standards it uses. He points to the Jones ruling, which suggested there could be a 4th Amendment violation for placing a GPS device on a car, as one of the reasons for his concern.
I was very concerned to read recent reports suggesting that state and local law enforcement agencies may be working around the protections of Jones by requesting the location records of individuals directly from their wireless carriers instead of tracking the individuals through stand-alone GPS devices installed on their vehicles. I was further concerned to learn that in many cases, these agencies appear to be obtaining precise records of individuals' past and current movements from carriers without first obtaining a warrant for this information. I think that these actions may violate the spirit if not the letter of the Jones decision.

I am writing to ask you about the Department of Justice's own practices in requesting location information from wireless carriers. I am eager to learn about how frequently the Department requests location information and what legal standard the Department believes it must meet to obtain it. I would also like to know how the Department may have changed these practices since the Jones decision.
While I certainly appreciate this effort and line of inquiry -- I'm not sure that Jones really makes that much of a difference. As we said when it came out, the Justices really danced around the larger issues, with an extremely narrow ruling, which left open the question of how it applied to GPS devices that weren't put on the cars by law enforcement. That is, the ruling focused almost entirely on whether or not the placing of the device constituted a search -- not about the use of such a device. Still, the government's actions need much greater scrutiny here, as there's an awful lot of evidence suggesting that law enforcement is using the power to get people's locations from their mobile phone providers at an incredible rate, and with little to no oversight. I doubt that AG Holder will provide useful answers to this request, but it's still good that Senator Franken is asking.
Hide this

Thank you for reading this Techdirt post. With so many things competing for everyone’s attention these days, we really appreciate you giving us your time. We work hard every day to put quality content out there for our community.

Techdirt is one of the few remaining truly independent media outlets. We do not have a giant corporation behind us, and we rely heavily on our community to support us, in an age when advertisers are increasingly uninterested in sponsoring small, independent sites — especially a site like ours that is unwilling to pull punches in its reporting and analysis.

While other websites have resorted to paywalls, registration requirements, and increasingly annoying/intrusive advertising, we have always kept Techdirt open and available to anyone. But in order to continue doing so, we need your support. We offer a variety of ways for our readers to support us, from direct donations to special subscriptions and cool merchandise — and every little bit helps. Thank you.

–The Techdirt Team

Filed Under: 4th amendment, al franken, doj, eric holder, gps, patriot act, ron wyden, tracking
Companies: sprint


Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread


  • icon
    Atkray (profile), 11 May 2012 @ 11:51am

    This doesn't add up to me

    Can someone explain please?

    8 million divided by 365 = 21917 requests per day every day?

    Even with multiple pings that is an insane amount of tracking going on. And this is just one carrier.

    How many people are looking at and processing this information or does it just go to a database in case the need to build a case against you later?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      BeeAitch (profile), 11 May 2012 @ 2:32pm

      Re: This doesn't add up to me

      The way I read it it's 8 million pings (data points), not requests; e.g., one request could result in thousands of pings on one account over a period of time.

      Basically, they request to track a device, and Sprint pings it a certain number of times/hour and gives the data to the agency requesting it.

      Anyone feel free to correct me if I'm wrong.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      BeeAitch (profile), 11 May 2012 @ 2:33pm

      Re: This doesn't add up to me

      "Even with multiple pings that is an insane amount of tracking going on. And this is just one carrier."

      I totally agree.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Mike42 (profile), 11 May 2012 @ 12:46pm

    Well,

    "We're sorry, Mr. Franken. But we were investigating copyright infringement for the MPAA..."

    "Oh, well, carry on then."

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Thomas (profile), 11 May 2012 @ 2:01pm

    It won't make a difference.

    The federal Gestapo (aka DOJ) will do what they please, and warrants are not something they bother with or even feel they need to have in the first place. They don't care about following laws anyway, so asking them why is a waste of time.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    TxAbsolem, 11 May 2012 @ 2:18pm

    Big Numbers

    They love big numbers, and atkray you began the math breaking it down, but you stopped. So lets take it further.

    8 million in a year, divided by 365 gets to your 21917 pings per day.

    It takes at least 3 pings from three towers, though 5 towers to evaluate strength and better triangulate, but with 3 we are down to 7306 pings a day.

    To monitor the phone for one hour, to evaluate if it is moving, you would ping at least once a minute. Now we are down to 121 seperate phones being requested for monitoring per day.

    Cycle in that this may not be information about where a person is now, but where they were last week, last hour or what have you. As part of an investigation. If they are requesting a week of cell tower ping information about one phone we are looking at 189 hours of information being requested. There for you have the potential for less than one phone number being investigated per day in a years time.

    Cell phone companies if you have a phone, are masters of showing the highest number of an equation to justify their side of the story, just look at your phone bill.

    Cell phone location requests are made daily to save lives of missing, lost or abducted people, not just those that are being investigated or tracked for legal measures. So not really a story here, just a lot of numbers being thrown around to impress or depress as you may find it.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Jim O (profile), 11 May 2012 @ 2:32pm

      Re: Big Numbers

      You make a good point. Numbers are meaningless without some perspective.

      That's why it's good to ask and find out exactly what's going on rather than just assume that one person was pinged 8 million times over the course of 30 seconds.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    legend, 12 May 2012 @ 7:07pm

    Cell Phone Location

    I live in Eastern North Carolina, and go to Atlantic Beach. It was apparent they were using pings to locate me, and even installed a tracking antannae at Ft Macon pier. I would ALWAYS see an armed response to my arrival in the form of park Rangers, but then I quit my cell phone. No worry, though, they had installed a camera at the bridge entry point, and now it takes them some time to get an unmarked ghost car there. Or in the case last week, two uniformed Atlantic Beach policemen with some ludicrous auto lock-out story. All they while they went all the way onto the pier directly to me. And never mind I heard the dispatcher state "a man without a shirt on". Mind you, last June, they stole half of my pain meds from my car, either there or in Beaufort. So if you don't want to be stolen from, steer clear of the camera that marks the bridge entrance to Atlantic Beach; they have a furtive surveillance asset watching it looking for targets from The Prescription Monitoring Program data base. Or people the Freemasons have it in for. Or just simply anyone in a nice car.
    Legend

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    legend, 12 May 2012 @ 7:08pm

    Cell Phone Location

    I live in Eastern North Carolina, and go to Atlantic Beach. It was apparent they were using pings to locate me, and even installed a tracking antannae at Ft Macon pier. I would ALWAYS see an armed response to my arrival in the form of park Rangers, but then I quit my cell phone. No worry, though, they had installed a camera at the bridge entry point, and now it takes them some time to get an unmarked ghost car there. Or in the case last week, two uniformed Atlantic Beach policemen with some ludicrous auto lock-out story. All they while they went all the way onto the pier directly to me. And never mind I heard the dispatcher state "a man without a shirt on". Mind you, last June, they stole half of my pain meds from my car, either there or in Beaufort. So if you don't want to be stolen from, steer clear of the camera that marks the bridge entrance to Atlantic Beach; they have a furtive surveillance asset watching it looking for targets from The Prescription Monitoring Program data base. Or people the Freemasons have it in for. Or just simply anyone in a nice car.
    Legend

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here



Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter




Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Make this the First Word or Last Word. No thanks. (get credits or sign in to see balance)    
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Close

Add A Reply

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here



Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter




Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Make this the First Word or Last Word. No thanks. (get credits or sign in to see balance)    
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Follow Techdirt
Special Affiliate Offer

Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Recent Stories

This site, like most other sites on the web, uses cookies. For more information, see our privacy policy. Got it
Close

Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.