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Hullabaloo


Monday, December 09, 2013

 
What if Big Brother is your crazy brother-in-law?

by digby

Everyone says the good news about the NSA spying is that they assure us that they have no interest in using all the information they're filing away about Americans. Unless we are a terrorist or know someone who is a terrorist or know someone who knows someone who might be a terrorist, (or might accidentally be overheard committing what someone might think is a crime) we have nothing to fear from all this surveillance.

Well, maybe not from the NSA, at least not this afternoon.  But they aren't the only game in town:
The National Security Agency isn't the only government entity secretly collecting data from people's cellphones. Local police are increasingly scooping it up, too. Armed with new technologies, including mobile devices that tap into cellphone data in real time, dozens of local and state police agencies are capturing information about thousands of cellphone users at a time, whether they are targets of an investigation or not, according to public records obtained by USA TODAY and Gannett newspapers and TV stations. 
The records, from more than 125 police agencies in 33 states, reveal: About one in four law-enforcement agencies have used a tactic known as a "tower dump," which gives police data about the identity, activity and location of any phone that connects to the targeted cellphone towers over a set span of time, usually an hour or two. A typical dump covers multiple towers, and wireless providers, and can net information from thousands of phones.
In most states, police can get many kinds of cellphone data without obtaining a warrant, which they'd need to search someone's house or car. Privacy advocates, legislators and courts are debating the legal standards with increasing intensity as technology — and the amount of sensitive information people entrust to their devices — evolves.

Many people aren't aware that a smartphone is an adept location-tracking device. It's constantly sending signals to nearby cell towers, even when it's not being used. And wireless carriers store data about your device, from where it's been to whom you've called and texted, some of it for years.

The power for police is alluring: a vast data net that can be a cutting-edge crime-fighting tool.

Last fall, in Colorado, a 10-year-old girl vanished while she walked to school. Volunteers scoured Westminster looking for Jessica Ridgeway.

Local police took a clandestine tack. They got a court order for data about every cellphone that connected to five providers' towers on the girl's route. Later, they asked for 15 more cellphone site data dumps.

Colorado authorities won't divulge how many people's data they obtained, but testimony in other cases indicates it was at least several thousand people's phones.

The court orders in the Colorado case show police got "cellular telephone numbers, including the date, time and duration of any calls," as well as numbers and location data for all phones that connected to the towers searched, whether calls were being made or not. Police and court records obtained by USA TODAY about cases across the country show that's standard for a tower dump.

The tower dump data helped police choose about 500 people who were asked to submit DNA samples. The broad cell-data sweep and DNA samples didn't solve the crime, though the information aided in the prosecution.
That pretty much says it all, doesn't it?  They used this data to "ask" people to submit their DNA as they were under suspicion for a kidnapping based solely on their cell phone location. (Keep in mind that your DNA will likely be put in another permanent data base which they will then have as irrefutable evidence of your presence at a crime scene if it should ever turn up. Of course, since police never plant evidence you have nothing to worry about.)

But it's a little girl's life at stake, you say. Nobody should be reluctant to do whatever it takes to return her. Ok.  But what about this?
A South Carolina sheriff ordered up four cell-data dumps from two towers in a 2011 investigation into a rash of car break-ins near Columbia, including the theft of Richland County Sheriff Leon Lott's collection of guns and rifles from his police-issued SUV, parked at his home. 
"We were looking at someone who was breaking into a lot of vehicles and was not going to stop," the sheriff said. "So, we had to find out as much information as we could." The sheriff's office says it has used a tower dump in at least one prior case, to help solve a murder. 
And if that didn't work I guess they planned to break down the doors of everyone in town without a warrant and search them for the missing items. Hey, they needed that information.

And they're collecting boatloads of it:
Law-enforcement records show police can use initial data from a tower dump to ask for another court order for more information, including addresses, billing records and logs of calls, texts and locations. 
Cellphone data sweeps fit into a broadening effort by police to collect and mine information about people's activities and movements. 
Police can harvest data about motorists by mining toll-road payments, red-light cameras and license-plate readers. Cities are installing cameras in public areas, some with facial-recognition capabilities, as well as Wi-Fi networks that can record the location and other details about any connecting device.
It is, unsurprisingly, being misused by local yahoos for their own purposes:
Some examples of documented misuse of cellphone data-gathering technology: 
In Minnesota: State auditors found that 88 police officers in departments across the state misused their access to personal data in the state driver's license database to look up information on family, friends, girlfriends or others without proper authorization or relevance to any official investigation in 2012. And those were just the clear-cut cases. Auditors said that more than half of the law enforcement officers in the state made questionable queries of the database, which includes photos and an array of sensitive personal data.  
In Florida: The state's Supreme Court is hearing a case in which a lower court found Broward County police overreached by conducting real-time tracking of the GPS location of a man's cellphone, using still-undisclosed techniques in collaboration with the cellphone carrier. The problem in that case: The police did so under authority of a court order that defense lawyers said authorized them to get only historical location data about his cellphone. 
In Illinois: A suburban Chicago police officer responsible for overseeing access to the department's criminal history database used the system to look up his girlfriend's record. Similar cases have shown up in other states, resulting in cases involving harassment, stalking and identity theft, among others.
It isn't just Big Brother who's watching our every move. It's our crazy brother-in-law too. Just casually accepting this seems like a bad idea to me.

All that information is from a major USA Today and Gannet investigation that everyone should read. I get that  most people don't see this as any big deal --- they've seen it used on Law and order and it caught "the bad guy."  But in real life this adds up to the police having access to a whole lot of personal information without any probable cause or a warrant and that adds up to way more power in the hands of police.  And they already have too much.

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