Skip to main content

Are the police tracking your calls?

By Catherine Crump, Special to CNN
May 22, 2012 -- Updated 1923 GMT (0323 HKT)
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
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1516 GMT (2316 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 2048 GMT (0448 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1340 GMT (2140 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 2153 GMT (0553 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 2305 GMT (0705 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT