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.