Blown To Bits

A Surprising Technique for Mobile Phone Surveillance

Tuesday, September 9th, 2008 by Harry Lewis

Chris Soghioian reports on a little-known industry that does something you might have thought illegal: provide to governments detailed data, including graphical presentations, of who is calling whom. The companies data-mine phone records to infer clusters. The story shows an example, taken from a corporate presentation, of a Google Earth map of Indonesia mashed up with phone data on 50 million people, crunched to reveal small groups of dissidents with a habit of calling each other.

But it couldn’t happen here, I hear you cry. If the government wanted this work done for them, where would they get the data? The cell phone companies, such as Verizon and Sprint, can’t legally turn it over without a court order, right?

Well, sort of right. But it turns out that wiretap laws don’t protect the data when it’s in the hands of other companies that the cell phone companies use for services related to your phone calls. For example, the cellular carrier doesn’t actually own any cell phone towers; it relies on companies such as Tower, Inc. for those. Tower, Inc. passes the phone calls on to the cellular carrier for processing, but isn’t covered by the same restrictive laws about use of that data. According to the article, suppose the National Security Agency wanted to conduct surveillance of the phone habits of U.S. citizens within the U.S.

Thus, while it may be impossible for the NSA to legally obtain large-scale, real-time customer location information from Verizon, the spooks at¬†Fort Meade¬†can simply go to the company that owns and operates the wireless towers that Verizon uses for its network and get accurate information on anyone using those towers–or go to other entities connecting the wireless network to the landline network. The wiretapping laws, at least in this situation, simply don’t apply.

And with the gag orders attached to data requests in the Patriot Act era, no one would probably be the wiser if this were happening right now.

Comments are closed.