Poll: Is Law Enforcement Going Too Far in Cell Phone Surveillance Requests?

Last year, cell phone companies had to respond to more than a million requests from police agencies throughout the country for personal data. Are our rights of privacy in danger?


Just how far should law enforcement be allowed to go in using cell phone technology when investigating crimes?

It's a legitimate question, and a tricky one. On one hand, we have the assumed privacy a cell phone owner may expect. Turn to the other hand, and it's easy to understand how valuable the information cell carriers possess can be in resolving crimes, perhaps in finding missing persons.

An article this week in the New York Times revealed cell phone carriers responded to 1.3 million requests from law enforcement last year. The sheer volume of requests astounded Representative Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who requested the reports from nine cell phone carriers, including Verizon, Sprint and AT&T.

"I never expected it to be this massive," Markey told the Times.

In the course of investigations, law enforcement agencies requested hundreds of thousands of text messages, caller locations and other information.

Cell carriers sometimes rejected the requests if they were considered "legally questionable or unjustified." According to the Times article, T-Mobile sent two requests to the F.B.I., considering them "inappropriate."

AT&T said it receives about 700 requests a day for information. In fact, most cell carriers now employ "large teams of lawyers, data technicians, phone 'cloning specialists' and others around the clock to take requests from law enforcement agencies, review the legality, and provide the data," said the Times.

For its part, law enforcement spokespeople argue the new digital tools available to them due to the proliferation of cell phones - and the traces they leave - are essential in solving crimes, vital to the task.

Indeed, in our area, when nursing student Michelle Le disappeared last year under suspicious circumstances, on the arrest of suspect Giselle Esteban: "Esteban, a 27-year-old Union City woman who attended high school with Le in San Diego, was charged with Le's murder on Sept. 8 - before Le's body was found - based on DNA evidence and cellphone records."

Readers reacting to the New York Times article seemed split.  Said one, "This country has a murder rate that is sky high — but I would rather live with five times the murders committed today than live under constant watch by a police state."

But another countered, “One of my children was mugged, pistol whipped, and robbed. A cell phone taken by the assailants was critical in tracking and securing their ultimate arrest and conviction. I understand the privacy issues quite well, but it is hard to argue with the effectiveness of cell data as a crime deterrent.”

What do you think? Is law enforcement abusing our right to privacy in its quest to solve criminal activity? Are the extended police privleges we enacted shortly after 9/11 being taken too far? Or should we not worry about the large number of requests, comfortable that the only people that need to worry are criminals themselves?

Tell us in your comments, then vote in the poll below.

Lou Covey, The Local Motive July 15, 2012 at 03:46 PM
As of June 2011, there were 327,577,520 mobile phone accounts in the US, which is 106 percent of the total population of the US, including undocumented aliens. So the number of requests for dat is less than 0.3 percent of all subscribers. Hardly significant.
Lou Covey, The Local Motive July 15, 2012 at 03:53 PM
Apparently the number of requests closely matches the number of mobile phoness confiscated from prisoners in state and federal facilities.
Jim Somers July 15, 2012 at 05:30 PM
Lou; You make an interesting point. There are approximately 300 million people in the U.S. But one violation of one person's 1st amendment rights is one too many. Numbers have nothing to do with it.
Traci July 15, 2012 at 06:00 PM
Cell phone searches, just like any other personal information, require a search warrant for law enforcement to retrieve it (the exception being if the person in question is on probation). And most large companies also keep law retainers on hand complete MANY legal duties for the corporation, including doublechecking warrant search requests, which is good business sense. All in all, this privacy argument is nothing new--only the vehicle is. When someone signs up for a cell phone, a Facebook account, or a membership on the Belmont Patch (;-) ), at that point, he or she is choosing to sacrifice some privacy for some convenience in communication. Hope everyone can find a happy medium!
Megan July 15, 2012 at 08:45 PM
Dear Jim, if somebody hurts you or a loved one, abducts a loved one, or does something illegal that affects you or others you love greatly, would you still feel the same about their first amendment rights??
Troy July 15, 2012 at 08:49 PM
I don't mind if they spy on me. I have nothing to hide. But what happened to the constitution?
Todd Mirkin July 15, 2012 at 09:53 PM
The "right to privacy" is, to a certain extent, a myth. This was aired and debated was recent on 2003. The argument against the statement I made above this it's "assumed" to be so. Like or rights to eat, sleep, have kids, etc. The other argument against this is a very "Constitutionalist" approach. The Bill of Rights, and the Constitution, explain what rights the Federal Government has and the rest assumed to be the people and/or the States. With this line of thought people have the right to privacy because the Government isn't granted the opposite via the Constitution. All of that said the primary purpose of the government is to protect the people. This is where I personally stand. I don't do anything, or do I hand out with anybody, that would help to justify the police or FBI listening in, checking trends of calls sent and received, using the GPS locating chip to track the location of a kidnapper (which btw was the original intent of that chip being put in cell phones), etc. Unlike one of the commenters in the NY Times I do put my kids and family's safety first when it .
DanC July 15, 2012 at 10:02 PM
Fun with statistics! Lou - What kind of tortured logic is that? From the article, AT&T processes about 700 law enforcement requests a day. They have to assign these requests to special legal staff. That's significant.
DanC July 15, 2012 at 10:04 PM
Megan - You seem to be responding to a different topic.
Lou Covey, The Local Motive July 16, 2012 at 12:49 AM
Dan, here's more statistics. 700 request to AT&T a day. How many mobile calls on the AT&T network are made a day? How many of those are connected to illicit activity? All I'm saying is that what the government is looking at is only a fraction on the legitimate possibilities they could be asking for. I don't think they'd be wasting ther own efforts checking you out.
Lou Covey, The Local Motive July 16, 2012 at 12:53 AM
Todd, I agree with you. Can the government abuse this? Possibly. Do they? I doubt they have the resources under current budget restrictions. We should be more concerned when they have unlimited budget.
Jo Tog July 16, 2012 at 02:20 AM
Until it happens to you. I was threatened and harassed. I made the mistake in deleting the messages. I ended up in a court room and could not prove the harassment through cell phone. There was other forms of harassment and physical threats so I didn't need it , but could of really used it to solidify the danger I was in.
Hamilton Woods July 16, 2012 at 02:32 AM
I believe that Law Enforcement should have access to every tool available to them to catch law breaking citizens. I don't mind if they have access to my personal data, it is the one's that intend to break the law that should be worried. Although Law Enforcement does a really good job, there has been too many instances where bad cops have abused the system or used it for their own personal use. It is also true that most cops will cover for other cops. Having said all of that, I still believe that our privacy should come second when it comes to fighting crime, if it is done correctly and by the book.
Kali July 16, 2012 at 10:42 AM
I agree Traci. You make a great point. People should have a understanding that if they have any of these devices, or join all these social networking sites, they are exposed. Add on all the various apps, tracking devices for phones, etc., that make life easier, also increases risks. Your legal point is spot on concerning warrants. Let's hope that stays as is.
Jim C July 16, 2012 at 03:32 PM
This isn't a first amendment issue, it's a fourth amendment issue.
Jim C July 16, 2012 at 03:41 PM
Really, it seems to me that we shouldn't be talking about whether it's wrong for the police to make "requests" so much as we should be questioning whether we want our cell phone carriers to share our information without our permission.
Lou Covey, The Local Motive July 16, 2012 at 05:03 PM
Jim, currently, law enforcement agencies are not required to get permission from individuals to get a search warrant. That still lands in the hands of a judge who has to make the decision based on the evidence brought to them. This article clearly states that the companies review requests from the agencies after they have received court permission to approach the mobile carrier. The article does states that the cell phone companies are giving up the information only after their lawyers say they should. And it doesn't seem to happen all that often.
Courtney Carreras July 16, 2012 at 06:18 PM
This is a difficult issue, however when I see people using the argument that, "I don't have to worry about it since I am not breaking the law.", or "It's only criminal who are affected." I am immediately suspicious. That is the classic argument used throughout history to slowly introduce measures that take away people's rights. Its the fear tactic, or "this measure will keep you safe from (insert whatever "threat" you want here)". We have to be very vigilant with regard to these issues.
Courtney Carreras July 16, 2012 at 06:23 PM
Is it easier to get records or information from a mobile phone than from someone's land line? The same requirements should apply to both in terms of law enforcement's requests for private info. I also think that a mobile phone is different from having a public social networking site. I want my calls on a mobile phone treated as private, while if I post information or pictures to a public internet site, I do not expect that to be treated with the same regard to privacy. If you are stupid enough to put threats, etc. in writing, like on a text, one should be able to use that as evidence.
Chip Krug July 17, 2012 at 01:39 AM
I wonder why this article does not include some data on the frequency with which our local jurisdictions avail themselves of this service. This is a local paper, right? Has Patch contacted the San Mateo County Sheriff or our municipal police departments to help flesh out this story?
Jim C July 17, 2012 at 02:08 AM
Lou, the article above doesn't say anything about subpoenas or search warrants. it's the Times' article that gives that information...and I didn't read that. You're correct, so if it's going through the courts, except in the case of emergencies, I don't understand why anyone would have a problem with this.
Jennifer van der Kleut July 17, 2012 at 04:22 AM
Chip - thanks for sharing your thought. If our readers are interested in knowing how often this happens in our County, that's definitely something Patch can inquire about.
Jim C July 17, 2012 at 05:41 AM
Now that I know that search warrants are involved, I see this as a non-issue.
Italiandoll July 17, 2012 at 06:58 AM
if the reqeust has something to do with an abduction or murder i can see a reason for such a reqeust..but as all know or should know, the police ABUSE there right to obtain cell records . all and all its evasion of privacy.
Marlene July 17, 2012 at 06:05 PM
Last summer a friend's elderly father disappeared. A week later another gentleman disappeared in the same area but was found alive near my friend's father's body, he was tracked through the use of his cell phone data. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/02/david-lavau-found-alive-a_n_990175.html If it helps my family to find me/my body quickly - go ahead and track my cell phone. I would hate for anyone else to go through what my friend went through.


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