They Knew Our Secrets. One Year Later, We Know Theirs.
But there was nothing extraordinary about what Verizon Wireless apparently did. Hundreds of thousands of times every year, cellphone companies turn over personal call records to law enforcement with neither a warning nor a judge’s involvement. Privacy activists said it’s no way for carriers to treat paying customers. They said they hope the AP controversy will force the big cell companies to change their ways.
“This is the phone companies putting the interest of law enforcement before their customers, and that’s wrong,” said Christopher Soghoian, principal technologist for the American Civil Liberties Union. “None of them tell users. They all suck.”
I love just how direct Chris is these days when speaking with the press about the telcos and their utterly abhorrent practices.
In Jewel, the Obama administration has already twice invoked the “state secrets” privilege, a mechanism left behind from the McCarthy-era persecution of Communist sympathizers which effectively lets the government ‘turn off’ the Constitution and the justice system whenever they feel that a case might jeopardize national security. The administration has promised to limit its use of the privilege to situations which present the potential for “significant harm” to the country. But that promise obviously hasn’t stopped them from deflecting recent challenges to warrantless wiretapping and other government counterterrorism initiatives — like indefinite detention provisions, or the secret program for targeted killings carried out by drones — nor will it necessarily restrain future administrations from doing the same.
Jewel may be the last chance for meaningful judicial review of the wiretapping programs in the foreseeable future. Failing that, the only remaining response for journalists and others dealing in sensitive overseas communications may be exactly what digital activists have been advocating for decades: widespread personal encryption. But aside from being somewhat impractical, the necessity of encrypted communications would more broadly underscore just how thoroughly the legal system has failed to protect citizens from unnecessary intrusion.
Thanks to a nationwide ACLU campaign to learn how our cell phones are being used to monitor us, we now know that cell phone service providers keep a staggering amount of data about their customers:
- Call records up to seven years.
- Contact information of who you’ve exchanged text messages for up to seven years.
- Cell tower history — which helps track the movement of your cell phone: all data from July 2008 onward.
- Copies of paid bills for up to seven years.
- IP addresses assigned to your device for up to one year.
Tell your cell phone service provider that you demand an explanation of the information that is kept about your account, when and how it is shared with third parties, and an easy way to control how long your private information is kept. Additionally, tell them you demand to be notified if this information is ever lost in a data breach or demanded by the government or anyone else.
If you use AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile or Verizon, this affects you.
Some of the reasons behind this data aggregation stems from law enforcement demands/expectations. Some stems from the low amount of storage all of this data (effectively) amounts to. Some stems from a need to plot out use patterns and predict growth rates. Some stems from a belief that more data is good data.
Regardless, the ACLU is right: customers should be demanding to know exactly why this data is being retained, the purposes the data is used for, and the parties that the data is shared with. Remember: if it isn’t collected or stored, it can’t be used against you in commercial, civil, or governmental practices.