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.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.
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.
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".Local telecoms have been a bit more forthcoming, but the statements lapse into the same rhetoric deployed by those doing the collecting.
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".
"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..."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.
Considering thousands of users are affected by tower dumps, Ludlam argues that they should count for the number of those who are affected.