- September 14, 2010
- Police & You
New forms of cell phone surveillance should have citizens questioning their privacy
Within the past few years, police and FBI have been gathering data from telephone companies that revealed the locations of customers’ cell phones– either in real-time or after the fact. The prosecutors said they needed the data to track drug traffickers and even corrupt officials, but some federal magistrates were troubled by the requests and refused to sign off on the orders.
Many cell phone owners aren’t even aware that their locations can be traced in real time by their cell phone provider. Cell phones have little GPS units inside them or each call is routed through towers that can be used to pinpoint a phones location. Locations can be pinpointed to areas as small as one city block. The initial use of this information was to help police and emergency officers during 911 calls. However, law enforcement has been obtaining more and more records of cell phone locations–without notifying the cell phone targets or obtaining a warrant.
There are some federal magistrates that have stood their ground, by not signing off on the warrants to obtain this information without probable cause. Even though they are gaining attention in the legal community, prosecutors can find other magistrates to sign off on the requests.
In 2006, a cell phone was used for more than just locating a suspect. The suspect’s cell phone was used as a microphone to listen and record the conversations everywhere the cell phone went, by the use of a “roving bug.”
Cell phones owned by two alleged mobsters were used by the FBI to listen to nearby conversations. After failed attempts by the FBI to use informants and other wiretapping techniques, the FBI used a “roving bug” to tap into the cell phones and listen to conversations. The order was signed off by a US District Judge to use the “roving bugs.”
In the 2006 opinion, Judge Kaplan in the southern district of New York ruled that the “roving bug” was legal because federal wiretapping law is broad enough to permit eavesdropping even of conversations that take place near a suspect’s cell phone. The opinion went on to say that the bug worked whether or not the phone was powered on or off.
The opinion and court affidavits were not clear on exactly how the “roving bug” worked. However, many experts and private investigators thought the activation of the microphone was remotely done, rather than a physical bug placed into to phone. The “roving bug” lasted for about a year and conversations could be heard anywhere in the US–outside the range of a nearby FBI agent armed with a radio receiver.
When the “roving bug” was used, the owner of the phone could not tell that their conversations were being recorded or that the microphone was being activated. The only way to counteract the bug would be to take the battery out of the cell phone.
Judge Kaplan concluded that the “roving bug” was legally permitted to capture hundreds of hours of conversation because the FBI had obtained a court order and no other alternatives seemed to work.
This ruling should have citizens questioning whether Big Brother is lingering too closely. The cell phone in your pocket may be more than what it appears to be.