(07-09) 15:28 PDT San Francisco – Law enforcement demands for cellphone records are skyrocketing, prompting serious questions about the appropriate safeguards for digital surveillance in the mobile age.
Carriers responded to some 1.3 million requests for subscriber records from police departments and other agencies last year, according to documents from nine carriers provided in response to a request from Representative Ed Markey (D-Mass.).The story was first reported in the New York Times, whose earlier article on the issue prompted the Congressional inquiry.
AT&T alone received more than 260,000 requests in 2011, up 62 percent from 2009, according to its response. It rejected fewer than 1,000 of the information demands last year.
AT&T stressed that it doesn’t market this service to law enforcement and that it merely charges money to defray its costs. It collected more than $8 million servicing the requests last year, but said that amount likely didn’t cover its expenses.
Obviously, there are appropriate circumstances for requesting cellphone data, including emergency circumstances like finding stranded hikers or kidnapped children. I’m also in favor of AT&T quickly turning over information to law enforcement in the case of stolen phones – especially mine. And, of course, there are criminal matters where the preponderance of evidence justifies prying into a person’s communications.
But the concern lies in the fact that cellphones, particularly smart phones, can provide incredibly detailed pictures of our lives. The location information alone can map out our daily routines and hint at our affiliates, political leanings, shopping patterns, even health. Data in our apps can reveal reading habits, personal photos, finances and more.