Monday, August 13, 2012

Ars Technica brings some silly sensationalist journalism. Mark Stanley and Jake Laperruque report Millions of Americans now fall within government's digital dragnet:
Until recently, average Americans could convince themselves they were safe from government snooping. Yes, the government engaged in warrantless wiretaps, but those were directed at terrorists. Yes, movies and TV shows featured impressive technology, with someone’s location highlighted in real time on a computer screen, but such capabilities were used only to track drug dealers and kidnappers.

Figures released earlier this month should dispel that complacency. It’s now clear that government surveillance is so widespread that the chances of the average, innocent person being swept up in an electronic dragnet are much higher than previously appreciated. The revelation should lead to long overdue legal reforms.

The new figures, resulting from a Congressional inquiry, indicate that cell phone companies responded last year to at least 1.3 million government requests for customer data—ranging from subscriber identifying information to call detail records (who is calling whom), geolocation tracking, text messages, and full-blown wiretaps.

Almost certainly, the 1.3 million figure understates the scope of government surveillance. One carrier provided no data. And the inquiry only concerned cell phone companies. Not included were ISPs and e-mail service providers such as Google, which we know have also seen a growing tide of government requests for user data.
First off, the data includes location tracking provided to 911. From AT&T's response:
Our Privacy Policy makes very clear that we will provide personal information to governmental agencies... To provide information regarding the caller's location to a public safety entity when a call is made to 911...
If AT&T's response is typical, a full 30% of the requests are a result of exigent requests, such as calls to 911.

Still, this is scary sounding, until you put it into a little context. 1.3 million wiretaps sounds like a lot, but in 2006, there were over 1.1 million people convicted of felonies in state courts alone in the US. Add in federal cases, cases where charges weren't brought, or were plea bargained down to misdemeanors, a one to one ratio of wiretaps to crimes really doesn't sound that far out of line. Also consider the possibility of over-counting-- does a request for text messages and voice calls on a cell phone count as two requests, or one? What about requests for historical call records, versus ongoing taps? What about instances where police have requested extensions on the duration of a wiretap, or for multiple phones for a single person, such as in the case of "burner" cells?

Most egregious, however, is this comment later in the article:
The only solution is to ensure that the government’s use of these tools is carefully focused. The best way to do that is to follow the standard in the Constitution and require the government to get a warrant from a judge before intruding in our lives.
(emph in original). First off, the Constitution doesn't actually require a warrant from a judge to conduct a search, it merely requires the search to be reasonable, and have probable cause. Secondly, if they bothered to look at the actual data provided by the cell phone companies, almost all of the requests did have subpoenas or orders/warrants, and weren't part of some mysterious NSA program.

Check your facts people.
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