Privacy is dead in the new and improved America. The New York Times thinks this is news.
A reporter named Eric Lichtblau ran a feature in the premier national newspaper Sunday that led with the recently disclosed fact that American police made “a startling 1.3 million demands for subscriber information last year…seeking text messages, caller locations and other information in the course of investigations.” You can read Lichtblau’s report here.
The statistics about cell phone surveillance in the Times piece were gathered by Representative Edward J. Markey, a traditional Democrat from Massachusetts who is one of the co-chairmen of the Bipartisan Congressional Privacy Caucus. Markey told the Times he was shocked by what he learned. “I never expected it (the extent of the surveillance) to be this massive,” he said.
Markey also told the Times that he was alarmed about the possibility that “digital dragnets” might compromise the privacy of Americans. “There’s a real danger we’ve already crossed the line,” Markey said.
For cell phones only, AT&T gets 700 requests a day for phone data from American police. Two-hundred-thirty of those requests are “exigent” and do not require the snooping policeman to get either a court order or a subpoena. Sprint gets 1,500 police requests for data each day. Cricket, a wireless carrier most people have never heard of got “42,500 law enforcement requests last year.”
Markey asked for the cell phone data of nine American companies: AT&T, C Spire, Cricket Communications, MetroPCS, Sprint, T-Mobile, TracFone, U.S. Cellular and Verizon. The data requested included text messages and locations. The number of phones affected is probably much greater than 1.3 million for two reasons. First the police demands are so frequent and routine that cell phone companies can not adequately account for all the requests they get. Additionally, each request may intrude on many callers as when police request all the information relayed through a cell phone tower.
The Times reported: “As cell surveillance increased, warrants for wiretapping by federal and local officials – eavesdropping on conversations – declined 14 percent last year to 2,732, according to a recent report from the Administrative Office of the United States Courts…. The diverging numbers suggest that law enforcement officials are shifting away from wiretaps in favor of other forms of cell tracking that are generally less legally burdensome, less time consuming and less costly.”
Lichtblau also mentions what he describes as a “muddled” Supreme Court ruling last year that forbid police to attach GPS locators to cars and monitor them without a court order. However, in most cases police do not need a warrant to monitor the GPS locator in a cell phone. The only way to turn those monitors off is to turn the phone off.
The Times story closes with a warning that police departments may be “keeping those records indefinitely in internal databases.”
Not Just Cell Phones
This was the second report by Lichtblau for the Times on the issue of cell phone surveillance. The Markey request for cell carrier records was prompted by a Times report last year. You can read that report, titled “Police Are Using Phone Tracking as a Routine Tool” here.
The issue of police spying on citizens using social media, emails and even Predator spy drones has promulgated dozens of major stories so far this year. David Kravets of Wired Magazine has been following the issue of electronic surveillance for more than a year. Earlier this month Kravets reported on demands by prosecutors and police for data on twitter users.
Last February, before the Times joined the hunt, Kravets reported on a “covert internet and telephone surveillance method known as pen register and trap-and-trace capturing.” The two techniques are used to capture “non-content information of outbound telephone and internet communications, such as phone numbers dialed, and the sender and recipient” and often the subject line for private emails. By law the Department of Justice is required to inform Congress about the number and nature of these requests but has apparently not done so since 1999.
The reports to Congress are mandated by the 25-year-old Electronic Communications Privacy Act. Kravits describes that as a, “…law (that) had once protected Americans’ electronic communications from the government’s prying eyes, but it has become so woefully outdated that it now grants the authorities nearly carte blanche powers to obtain Americans’ e-mail stored in the cloud, such as in Gmail or Hotmail – without a court warrant.” The February article states this surveillance is commonly carried out by the “Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Drug Enforcement Agency, the Marshals Service and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.”
Most of this information is collected as part of the International War on Terror and is authorized by the Patriot Act. The act, extended by Congress in 2011, allows wiretaps without identifying a target or the method of communication to be tapped, allows any person to be monitored for any reason and allows secret warrants for business records of any kind.
Fusion Centers And War Rooms
The larger and more important issue that both Wired and the Times miss is why this information is collected, what happens to it after it has been archived and why.
Of those three issues the easiest to explain is the last – why. The information is collected and archived because any distinction that once existed between police forces and between the military and civilian police is already irrevocably blurred. Police already talk about themselves as if they were soldiers in a war. And, the war on terror continues because victory has been defined in ludicrous terms – such as bringing feminist values to Afghanistan and annihilating every, last terrorist. Since that job is impossible both federal and local police and prosecutors have participated in this great campaign by targeting “transnational terrorists” including street gangs, motorcycle clubs, right wing militias, fundamentalist Mormons, the Tea Party and the Occupy Movement.
Secondly all of this personal, private information collected by police departments, bureaus and agencies is permanently stored in both fusion centers and war rooms.
Fusion Centers are joint enterprises of the Department of Justice which includes the FBI, the DEA, the Marshalls and the ATF, and the largest federal police department, the Department of Homeland Security. The centers began to appear in 2003 and they have become omniscient. Nevada for example, the seventh largest but only the 35th most populous state, has three fusion centers.
War rooms are both intelligence repositories and traffic control centers for federally defined High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas. There are now so many domestic spies that a key function of War Rooms is to keep track off all these informants, prevent them from conflicting (or shooting) each other, and feed their Reports of Investigation into the great Amazon of domestic intelligence. There is no longer a meaningful distinction between information collected by small town cops and the Department of Justice. It all ends up in the same, top-secret, computer network.
The point of these centers is to collect every credit card transaction, the time and location of every license plate on every major road, every legally and illegally tapped telephone conversation, text message and email, every public record, every secret police report, every social network comment, every blog post and much more into enormous databases that are constantly mined for hidden patterns. This data mining is a variation on the ancient Hebrew mystical art of Gematria – a kind of fortune telling.
These war rooms and fusion centers represent a radical departure from the values and ideas of men like Louis Brandeis who once wrote: “The makers of our Constitution undertook to secure conditions favorable to the pursuit of happiness. They recognized the significance of man’s spiritual nature, of his feelings and of his intellect. They knew that only a part of the pain, pleasure and satisfactions of life are to be found in material things. They sought to protect Americans in their beliefs, their thoughts, their emotions and their sensations. They conferred, as against the government, the right to be let alone – the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men.”
Data collection and mining, war rooms and fusion centers exist because the last two administrations and the last four Congresses have decided that the security of the United States can no longer depend on a free and informed citizenry. America’s very survival now depends on domestic spies and fortune tellers. And these fusion center data sets are now so huge that the fortune tellers, or analysts, who mine them usually find exactly what they want to find.