Skip to main content

Are the police tracking your calls?

By Catherine Crump, Special to CNN
updated 3:23 PM EDT, Tue May 22, 2012
Whom you text and call and where you go can reveal a great deal about you, says Catherine Crump.
Whom you text and call and where you go can reveal a great deal about you, says Catherine Crump.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A number of cell phone companies are selling users' private information to police
  • Catherine Crump: Wireless carriers have been secretive about their actions
  • She says the public needs to be informed so that this surveillance technique is not abused
  • Crump: Wireless carriers should tell customers how data is collected, stored and shared

Editor's note: Catherine Crump is a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union's Speech, Privacy and Technology Project.

(CNN) -- Do you know how long your cell phone company keeps records of whom you text, who calls you or what places you have traveled? Do you know how often cell phone companies turn over this information to the police and whether they first ask the police to get a warrant based on probable cause?

No, you don't. Not unless you work for a cell phone company or a law enforcement agency with a specialty in electronic surveillance. You aren't alone: Congress and the courts have no idea either.

The little we do know is worrisome. The companies are not legally required to turn over your information simply because a police officer is curious about you. Yet wireless carriers sell this information to police all the time.

Catherine Crump
Catherine Crump

As far as the cell phone companies are concerned, the less Americans know about it the better.

Whom you text and call and where you go (tracked by your cell phone as long as it's on) can reveal a great deal about you. Your calling patterns can show which friends matter to you the most, and your travel patterns can reveal what political and religious meetings you attend and what doctors you visit. Over time, this data accumulates into a dossier portraying details of your life so intimate that you may not have thought of them yourself. In comparison with companies such as Facebook and Google, which collect, store and use our information in one way or another, cell phone companies are less transparent.

U.S. Rep. Edward Markey, co-chairman of the Congressional Bipartisan Privacy Caucus, recently requested that cell phone companies disclose basic statistics on how our personal data is shared with the government. Let's hope the companies are forthcoming -- but don't hold your breath.

To be sure, there can be legitimate reasons for law enforcement agents to track individuals' movements. For example, when officers can demonstrate to a judge that they have a good reason to believe that tracking will turn up evidence of a crime. But with a surveillance technique this powerful, the public has a strong interest in understanding how it is used to ensure that it is not abused. While the details of individual investigations can legitimately be kept secret, the public and our elected representatives have a right to know the policies in general so their wisdom can be debated.

Cell phone companies have long concealed these facts, and they're fighting vigorously to keep it that way. In California, the cell phone industry recently opposed a bill that would have required companies to tell their customers how often and under what circumstances they turn over location information to the police, complaining that it would be "unduly burdensome."

What little has come to light so far about the companies' practices does not paint a comforting picture. Addressing a surveillance industry conference in 2009, Sprint's electronic surveillance manager revealed that the company had received so many requests for location data that it set up a website where the police could conveniently access the information from the comfort of their desks. In just a 13-month period, he said, the company had provided law enforcement with 8 million individual location data points. Other than Sprint, we do not have even this type of basic information about the frequency of requests for any of the other cell phone companies.

The poorly understood relationship between cell phone companies and police raises grave privacy concerns. Like the companies, law enforcement agencies have a strong incentive to keep what is actually happening a secret, lest the public find out and demand new legal protections. More than 10 years ago, the Justice Department convinced the House of Representatives to abandon legislation that would have required law enforcement agencies to compile similar statistics, arguing that it would turn "crime fighters into bookkeepers."

The excessive secrecy has frustrated the ability of the American people to have an informed debate on just how much information police should have access to without judicial oversight or having to show probable cause. It has also prevented Congress and the courts from effectively addressing these intrusive surveillance powers. That is not how our system of government is supposed to work.

It would not be difficult for the carriers to tell customers how their data is collected, stored and shared. In fact, an internal Justice Department document from 2010, dislodged through a public records request by the American Civil Liberties Union, showed the data retention policies of all major carriers on a single piece of paper. The phone companies have all created detailed handbooks for law enforcement agents describing their policies and prices charged for surveillance assistance, a few dated versions of which have seeped out onto the Internet.

If the cell phone companies can provide this information to law enforcement agencies, they can and should provide basic information about their sharing of data with law enforcement to their customers, too. While law enforcement sometimes argues that making members of the public aware that cell phone companies can track them will make it more difficult to catch criminals, it is too late in the day for that argument now that cell phone tracking is a staple of television police procedurals.

Why aren't these policies available on the companies' websites? With such information, consumers could vote with their wallets and punish those companies that don't protect privacy. Keeping their customers in the dark about surveillance is better for business, it seems.

We pay the cell phone companies to provide us with a service, not keep tabs on us for the government. And yet the companies that now have access to some of our most private information refuse to reveal even the most basic facts about their policies? We deserve better.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Catherine Crump.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
updated 7:23 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT