U.S. law enforcement agencies are tracking more cellular devices than ever these days but obtaining fewer wiretapping warrants, according to a report by Eric Lichtblau, published in Sunday’s New York Times.
That’s thanks in part to a proliferation in location-based technologies and flexible communications providers that turn over information based on police claims of an ongoing “emergency.” Comparing numbers from the Administrative Office of the United States Courts to figures shared by Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA), the Times found that law enforcement requests to track devices come fast and furious every single day for the major mobile carriers, but very few included court approval.
The exact number of mobile devices spied upon since 2007 is not yet known, mostly because a single request can often involve multiple callers or whole areas on the map, potentially revealing thousands of peoples’ locations at once. But Rep. Markey, who chairs the Bipartisan Congressional Privacy Caucus, asked carriers to look into the matter, discovering that mobile phone tracking requests are at an all-time-high and still growing.
The Times added that AT&T by itself accounts for “more than 700 requests a day,” and roughly “230 of them” are “emergencies” that don’t require a court order — more than three times the number the carrier recorded in 2007. All carriers combined, the Times noted that 1.3 million requests were placed last year alone, the vast majority of them lacking any kind of court approval.
That’s in stark contrast to the total number of actual “wiretap” requests, where police actively eavesdrop on conversations with the permission of a judge — in all, there were just 2,732 wiretaps authorized by judges in 2011, the most recent annual U.S. Wiretap Report claimed. Interestingly, that figure represents a decline of 14 percent over 2010.
Even if these sorts of requests were ever ruled to be surpassing police authority, the telecoms would not be held criminally or civilly accountable thanks to a law passed in 2008 that gave them retroactive immunity for helping government agents spy on Americans in the years following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
President Barack Obama, as a U.S. Senator from Illinois, voted for an amendment to that bill which would have stripped telecom immunity, but it did not pass. And while he’d also pledged to filibuster the bill — much like his opponent at the time, then-Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) — Sen. Obama ultimately voted for it with immunity attached, and as president his Department of Justice has defended it in court.
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