Carriers Face Increasing Demands for Information - California Can Lead the Way in Protecting Privacy

Jul 09, 2012
Chris Conley

Page Media

ACLU of Northern CA

This morning's New York Times features a front-page story about an "uptick" in demands for information from cell carriers by law enforcement. As the ACLU's Chris Calabrese writes, the numbers are staggering: 1.3 million requests for information, possibly many times that many users affected, hundreds of full-time employees whose sole job is to process incoming demands, and reports that these demands are increasing by 10% or more every year. While Congress is still debating bills that would address this, a California bill (SB 1434) that would require law enforcement to obtain a search warrant before demanding sensitive location information is already progressing through the legislature with bipartisan support. With your help, California can once again be a leader in protecting individual privacy.

CTIA, the wireless industry trade group, has already said that wireless carriers are "working night and day" to comply with law enforcement requests and demands for information, but hard numbers about exactly how many requests and demands they receive have been difficult to come by. Senator Markey and the carriers deserve our thanks for shining at least some light on the current situation. But transparency is only the first step. We need laws in place to ensure that law enforcement doesn't have unfettered access to this information.

Unfortunately, neither California nor federal law has been updated to directly address the explosion of digital information, including location information, over the past decades. As a result, there are "confusing and at times contradictory legal standards" that fail to provide adequate protection for location information, which as Justice Sotomayor recently noted can be very personal indeed:

GPS monitoring generates a precise, comprehensive record of a person's public movements that reflects a wealth of detail about her familial, political, professional, religious, and sexual associations. … Awareness that the Government may be watching chills associational and expressive freedoms. And the Government's unrestrained power to assemble data that reveal private aspects of identity is susceptible to abuse.

Fortunately, both Congress and the California legislature are contemplating just those kind of laws. In DC, the Wyden-Chaffetz "GPS Act" has been introduced in both the House and Senate, but needs your support. And California's SB 1434 has just passed through the Assembly Public Safety Committee with unanimous bipartisan support but still faces a vote on the Assembly floor and then the governor's desk.

So please make your voices heard. Tell Governor Brown and your Assembly member to support SB 1434, and tell your U.S. Senator and Representative to support the GPS Act. These bills are an important step in bringing our laws and the protections for our privacy in line with our modern technology.

Chris Conley is the Technology and Civil Liberties Fellow with the ACLU of Northern California.