By Jon Stokes | Last updated December 1, 2009 5:38 PM
A blogger has released audio of Sprint’s Electronic Surveillance Manager describing the carrier’s cooperation with law enforcement. Among the revelations are that Sprint has so far filled over 8 million requests from LEOs for customer GPS data.
Christopher Soghoian, a graduate student at Indiana University’s School of Informatics and Computing, has made public an audio recording of Sprint/Nextel’s Electronic Surveillance Manager describing how his company has provided GPS location data about its wireless customers to law enforcement over 8 million times. That’s potentially millions of Sprint/Nextel customers who not only were probably unaware that their wireless provider even had an Electronic Surveillance Department, but who certainly did not know that law enforcement offers could log into a special Sprint Web portal and, without ever having to demonstrate probable cause to a judge, gain access to geolocation logs detailing where they’ve been and where they are.
Through a mix of documents unearthed by Freedom of Information Act requests and the aforementioned recording, Soghoian describes how “the government routinely obtains customer records from ISPs detailing the telephone numbers dialed, text messages, emails and instant messages sent, web pages browsed, the queries submitted to search engines, and geolocation data, detailing exactly where an individual was located at a particular date and time.”
The fact that federal, state, and local law enforcement can obtain communications “metadata”—URLs of sites visited, e-mail message headers, numbers dialed, GPS locations, etc.—without any real oversight or reporting requirements should be shocking, but it isn’t. The courts ruled in 2005 that law enforcement doesn’t need to show probable cause to obtain your physical location via the cell phone grid. All of the aforementioned metadata can be accessed with an easy-to-obtain pen register/trap & trace order. But given the volume of requests, it’s hard to imagine that the courts are involved in all of these.
Soghoian’s lengthy post makes at least two important points, the first of which is that there are no reliable statistics on the real volume and scope of government surveillance because such numbers are either not published (sometimes in violation of the legally mandated reporting requirements) or they contain huge gaps. The second point is that the lack of reporting makes it difficult to determine just how involved the courts actually are in all of this, in terms of whether these requests are all backed by subpoenas.