In 1949, with images of the Nazi empire still in mind, George Orwell’s novel “1984” was published. Orwell envisioned a world 35 years into the future, a world where everyone was under constant surveillance by “Big Brother.” While we are 63 years from the publication date of “1984” Orwell’s predictions are being realized.
In a New York Times story earlier this week, Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., the sponsor of a study to see how law enforcement was using its powers to gather cell phone information said, “I never expected it would be this massive.” What he meant by massive is clear to see. The reports from AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon, C Spire Wireless, TracFone and Cricket show that law enforcement requested subscriber information 1.3 million times last year. AT&T fields, on average, 700 requests a day, with 230 regarded as emergency requests that don’t require a subpoena or court order. Sprint said it received at least 1,500 data request daily.
This practice has become standard operating procedure at all levels of law enforcement and has turned into a headache as well as a profit center for the wireless carriers. Law enforcement uses its powers to track individuals or groups of individuals that may or may not have anything to do with what the police are seeking. For example, when an agency asks for a cell tower dump, it could get thousands of names. The requests have become such a headache that some carriers have outsourced the process to third parties. Others have had to hire teams of lawyers to make sure the requests are on the up and up. Carriers can charge “reasonable rates” for providing the data and AT&T, for example, collected $8.3 million last year for the information, but some carriers report not being paid for their invoices.
There is a fine line between privacy concerns and the needs and wants of law enforcement. While Congress gave the carriers immunity for turning over information to the Bush administration in 2006, abuses are sure to draw fire and have. Apparently, many law enforcement agencies use the emergency clause when there is no emergency. Some carriers have denied some request. T-Mobile referred a couple of request to the FBI after deeming them inappropriate.
The bottom line is that Americans’ expectation of having a modicum of privacy is almost a quaint notion. With surveillance cameras becoming more widespread in big and small cities all over the world, we are closer to Orwell’s nightmare than ever before. Our court system does not move as fast as technology and we are sure the boundaries of what is and what isn’t proper will eventually land before judges. But that won’t come soon enough for those who may be caught in a digital dragnet they didn’t expect or deserve.
-- Charles E. Richardson, for the Editorial Board