This October, Chris Soghoian — computer security researcher, oft-times journalist, and current technical consultant for the FTC's privacy protection office — attended a closed-door conference called "ISS World". ISS World — the "ISS" is for "Intelligence Support Systems for Lawful Interception, Criminal Investigations and Intelligence Gathering" — is where law enforcement and intelligence agencies consult with telco representatives and surveillance equipment manufacturers about the state of electronic surveillance technology and practice. Armed with a tape recorder, Soghoian went to the conference looking for information about the scope of the government's surveillance practices in the US. What Soghoian uncovered, as he reported on his blog this morning, is more shocking and frightening than anyone could have ever expected.
At the ISS conference, Soghoian taped astonishing comments by Paul Taylor, Sprint/Nextel's Manager of Electronic Surveillance. In complaining about the volume of requests that Sprint receives from law enforcement, Taylor noted a shocking number of requests that Sprint had received in the past year for precise GPS (Global Positioning System) location data revealing the location and movements of Sprint's customers. That number?
Sprint received over 8 million requests for its customers' information in the past 13 months. That doesn't count requests for basic identification and billing information, or wiretapping requests, or requests to monitor who is calling who, or even requests for less-precise location data based on which cell phone towers a cell phone was in contact with. That's just GPS. And, that's not including legal requests from civil litigants, or from foreign intelligence investigators. That's just law enforcement. And, that's not counting the few other major cell phone carriers like AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile. That's just Sprint.
[M]y major concern is the volume of requests. We have a lot of things that are automated but that's just scratching the surface. One of the things, like with our GPS tool. We turned it on the web interface for law enforcement about one year ago last month, and we just passed 8 million requests. So there is no way on earth my team could have handled 8 million requests from law enforcement, just for GPS alone. So the tool has just really caught on fire with law enforcement. They also love that it is extremely inexpensive to operate and easy, so, just the sheer volume of requests they anticipate us automating other features, and I just don't know how we'll handle the millions and millions of requests that are going to come in.
Eight million would have been a shocking number even if it had included every single legal request to every single carrier for every single type of customer information; that Sprint alone received eight million requests just from law enforcement only for GPS data is absolutely mind-boggling. We have long warned that cell phone tracking poses a threat to locational privacy, and EFF has been fighting in the courts for years to ensure that the government only tracks a cell phone's location when it has a search warrant based on probable case. EFF has also complained before that a dangerous level of secrecy surrounds law enforcement's communications surveillance practices like a dense fog, and that without stronger laws requiring detailed reporting about how the government is using its surveillance powers, the lack of accountability when it comes to the government's access to information through third-party phone and Internet service providers will necessarily breed abuse. But we never expected such huge numbers to be lurking in that fog.