Phone Tracking Big Business For Cell Companies

Apr 5, 2012
Originally published on April 5, 2012 4:58 pm
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We learned several days ago, thanks to an ACLU Freedom of Information Act suit, that local law enforcement is often tracking cell phones without court orders to do so. The New York Times, which looked at documents that the ACLU received, reported that cell phone tracking has become widespread, and that it's also big business for cell phone companies.

Well, now Forbes magazine technology reporter Andy Greenberg has looked into that business. How much do does a cell phone company charge for records of your cell phone's whereabouts? Well, Andy Greenberg joins us now from New York. Welcome.

ANDY GREENBERG: Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: And how much do they charge?

GREENBERG: Well, what's interesting is just how varied and complex these bills to law enforcement for data intercepts and wire tapping are. It's really just as complex as it is for you and I to pay our cell phone bill. There's a fee to intercept voice but there's an extra fee for text messages and voicemail, for instance. So, T-Mobile, for instance, charges a flat fee of $500 per target and AT&T charges $325 activation fee plus this $5 per per data and $10 for audio. It sounds quite a lot like it does when we pay our monthly bills.

SIEGEL: Yeah, reach out and tap someone is what it sounds like.


SIEGEL: If a cell phone company actually has a stated policy that it won't sell its customers information to anyone, are they breaking that policy if they have this whole schedule of fees, and there's no court order mandating surveillance?

GREENBERG: Well, that's what strange about the responses that I got from phone carriers. AT&T specifically pointed me towards their privacy policy when I asked about this and highlighted the one sentence that says: We do not sell your information to anyone - period.

And when I brought this up to the ACLU, they said that's clearly misleading. I mean, what is the definition of sell? I mean these companies are in fact handing over your data to a third party, law enforcement in this case, for a fee. So, does that sound like selling your data to you? This sounds quite a lot like it to me.

SIEGEL: Did AT&T tell you how they reconcile what they're doing with their policy?

GREENBERG: AT&T was one of the most closed-mouth companies that I asked about this. Sprint and Verizon both had slightly more detailed responses. Sprint, for instance, wanted to point out that it doesn't profit from this. But it does feel like it's legally required to comply.

SIEGEL: Now, so far as you know and what you've gleaned from the ACLU, are we talking about a handful of terror suspects, serial murderers, kidnappers? Or is this a relatively widespread concerning lots of criminal suspects?

GREENBERG: I think the vast majority of wiretappings are about drugs, that the war on drugs. If you look at the last 10 years, there's been this vast increase in wiretappings, which are all reported. These are the ones that require warrants and that's documented in a report from the courts that submitted every year.

SIEGEL: As you understand it, if a cell phone carrier would just say: No, you need a court order to do that, would law enforcement then just go to court and get warrants?

GREENBERG: That's my understanding. But there are different kinds of these data requests. There are straightforward wiretaps for which law enforcement does seem to need a warrant. But then there are these things like pen registers and trap and trace, which simply look at the call logs - the numbers that someone is calling and who's calling them. And then there are things like checking text messages. And then perhaps, you know, the creepiest of all is location tracking. And for location tracking there is a legal mandate for a warrant as yet.

SIEGEL: What exactly the tower dump? I gather that say term of art here.

GREENBERG: That's something that I first learned about through this (unintelligible) request from the ACLU. And it's been described to me as the record of every call that's made and every call that's received through a certain tower, regardless of whether they're a suspect in a criminal investigation or not.

SIEGEL: It is clear to you, by the way, that this fee schedule that you were told about, this is only for law enforcement even without a warrant? Or - I mean could the local daily newspaper or a local TV newsroom decide that it wants to buy a tower dump, or to track a particular cell phone?

GREENBERG: I really hope that's not the case. That would be an enormous privacy scandal. But there is no indication from these documents that that's happening. I mean, these are very - I got this billing specifically from a Tucson, Arizona police department. And they're referring to this as a law enforcement request system, not something that, you know, Rupert Murdoch can call up Sprint and get thousands of people's phone record's. Thank God.

SIEGEL: Well, thanks for talking with us about it.

GREENBERG: Thanks so much.

SIEGEL: That's technology reporter Andy Greenberg of Forbes magazine.



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