Wireless Industry Admits: "Working Day and Night" to Hand Over Your Location Info to Police
Wireless companies are opposing an important new mobile privacy bill in California (SB 1434) because they say they are too busy "working day and night to assist law enforcement," so it would be too much of a burden to tell their customers how often and why they are turning over location data to law enforcement.
Every moment of every day, our mobile devices track our location, and our cell providers collect and retain this information. Our location data—where we go and what we do—is sensitive information. Wireless companies should be working day and night for us—their customers—not for law enforcement.
CTIA, the industry association representing wireless companies like AT&T, Sprint and Verizon, is opposing the California Location Privacy Bill (SB 1434). The bill would make sure that police get a warrant before getting access to sensitive location information from your cell provider and would ensure that cell phone companies tell us how often and why they are turning over location information so that we can make sure that the police are actually following the law. The bill is being heard by the California Senate Public Safety Committee on Tuesday, April 24.
Why are they opposing this important new privacy law?
The wireless industry's opposition letter claims it would "unduly burdensome" to tell Californians what is happening because they are already so busy giving your location data to law enforcement. Their letter says, "These reporting mandates would unduly burden wireless providers and their employees – who are working day and night to assist law enforcement…" (Read the full letter)
The wireless industry opposition letter also claims that giving customers information annually on how often and why location information is given to law enforcement would be "too burdensome and costly," is "unnecessary," and would not benefit wireless consumers.
Burdensome? Costly? Seriously?
It hasn't been too burdensome for Sprint Nextel to process 8 million demands for location information in just over a single year from law enforcement. In December 2009, Sprint's Electronic Surveillance team manager revealed that the company's automated web systems for law enforcement requests "has just really caught on fire with law enforcement" and "is extremely inexpensive to operate and easy."
We don't know how many demands other wireless carriers are processing or whether they have automated systems too. But we do know that the major wireless carriers already keep records of the demands they receive from law enforcement because documents obtained by the ACLU have included invoices for the fees that companies charge law enforcement for access to our location information.
As a result of a recent ACLU nationwide public records request seeking information about law enforcement agencies' policies and practices around cell tracking, we also know that many law enforcement agencies are violating Americans' privacy rights by obtaining location information without a probable cause warrant. The majority of local California police departments refused to disclose documents about their location tracking practices after the ACLU's public records request, so we don't know the full picture here.
Wireless companies should be doing everything in their power to protect the privacy of customer location information and making sure it cannot be misused, not opposing a crucial privacy bill that would ensure proper oversight for police access to the sensitive location data that these companies collect about us.
Our mobile phones should be working for us, not the police.
It's time to update California privacy law so it matches our modern mobile world and keeps our personal information safe from misuse. Call or email the California Senate Public Safety Committee today, and ask them to protect the privacy of your location information by supporting SB 1434.
And let the wireless companies know that they need to be working for you, not law enforcement by tweeting this: @CTIA [@YOUR CELL PROVIDER] Wireless companies should be working day & night for customers, not police http://bit.ly/Jk6H8m #sb1434
Wireless Companies Twitter Handles: @ATT @Sprint @Verizon @TMobile
Nicole A. Ozer is the Technology and Civil Liberties Policy Director with the ACLU of Northern California.