Is Anyone Not Monitoring Cell Phones?

The NSA is not the only government agency listening in on cell phone conversations. The police are also doing it – and apparently the method they employ is highly questionable. The police have warrants when they engage in  wire tapping, but the warrants can only cover specific persons. The wire tapping of cell phones seems however not exactly precisely targeted. Freedom of information requests regarding the method are meanwhile blocked by the expedient of invoking the need to protect the 'trade secrets' of the company that makes the surveillance equipment:


“Police across the country may be intercepting phone calls or text messages to find suspects using a technology tool known as Stingray. But they're refusing to turn over details about its use or heavily censoring files when they do. Police say Stingray, a suitcase-size device that pretends it's a cell tower, is useful for catching criminals, but that's about all they'll say.

For example, they won't disclose details about contracts with the device's manufacturer, Harris Corp., insisting they are protecting both police tactics and commercial secrets. The secrecy — at times imposed by non-disclosure agreements signed by police — is pitting obligations under private contracts against government transparency laws. Even in states with strong open records laws, including Florida and Arizona, little is known about police use of Stingray and any rules governing it.

A Stingray device tricks all cellphones in an area into electronically identifying themselves and transmitting data to police rather than the nearest phone company's tower. Because documents about Stingrays are regularly censored, it's not immediately clear what information the devices could capture, such as the contents of phone conversations and text messages, what they routinely do capture based on how they're configured or how often they might be used.

In one of the rare court cases involving the device, the FBI acknowledged in 2011 that so-called cell site simulator technology affects innocent users in the area where it's operated, not just a suspect police are seeking.

Earlier this month, journalist Beau Hodai and the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona sued the Tucson Police Department, alleging in court documents that police didn't comply with the state's public-records law because they did not fully disclose Stingray-related records and allowed Harris Corp. to dictate what information could be made public.”


(emphasis added)

If one thinks this through, it seems a near certainty that equipment 'imitating a cell-phone tower' won't solely pick out the conversations of suspects. It will more likely simply pick up every cell phone conversation in its vicinity.

Following this train of thought further, one wonders what happens if other 'suspicious sounding' conversations are recorded that are taking place between people for whom no court warrant authorizing wire tapping has been issued. Some people might say 'good, more criminals will be caught', but that would be tantamount to saying that no court warrants should be required at all, and the police should simply listen to everything on the off-chance that they might find 'something suspicious'.



(Image source unknown – the web)


Liberty and Security

In fact, this is precisely the argument made by the supporters of the ever more ubiquitous surveillance state: your constitutional rights don't matter, since allegedly, 'if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear'. Therefore, if the State's security minions are spying incessantly on you, that's just fine. We have previously pointed out how deeply flawed this line of thinking is.  Not only is it inimical to civilization itself when people no longer feel their private conversations are secure, but by weakening the protection of individual rights, one simply paves the way for a fascist tyranny down the road.



Calm down, citizen … it's all good.

(image author unknown, via


This latest revelation comes by the way on the heels of reports published in 2013 informing us that police regularly perform so-called 'tower dumps', which allow them to map the locations of thousands of cell-phone users at specific points in time. There are no rules on how long the data obtained by these tower dumps can be kept, and the suspicion that they are kept 'indefinitely' has been voiced.  These 'tower dumps' do not require court warrants (the Supreme Court has in fact ruled that they do not represent data protected under the 4th amendment), but some judges are apparently beginning to disagree with the idea:


“In May, a federal magistrate judge in Texas insisted on a warrant for a tower dump that he said would have applied to 77 towers in a four-mile radius in a five-minute period, yielding “hundreds or even thousands of telephone numbers.”

“The cell-site location records at issue here currently enable the tracking of the vast majority of Americans,” wrote Brian L. Owsley, a federal magistrate judge in the Southern District of Texas, in an opinion denying the original request. “Thus, the collection of cell-site location records effectively enables ‘mass’ or ‘wholesale’ electronic surveillance, and raises greater Fourth Amendment concerns than a single electronically surveilled car trip.”

Another concern is how long the data are kept. Allen, the FBI spokesman, said that “the FBI only collects and maintains information that has investigative value and relevance to a case.” That could be indefinitely, former U.S. officials said. The D.C. police department said it sometimes uses such data but does not keep them. Other jurisdictions, including Fairfax and Prince George’s counties, declined to comment on their retention practices.”


(emphasis added)

It can probably be inferred that those 'declining to comment' on their retention practices are in the 'we'll hang on to this stuff forever' camp.  To be sure, these investigative techniques do yield information that is supporting legitimate police work. For instance, the FBI has reportedly been able to foil bank robbers by screening the information from tower dumps and cross-correlating cell-phone locations with the location of robberies.

It may be debatable whether 'tower dumps' as such are objectionable if employed judiciously in aiding specific investigations. Retention of the data 'forever' is a different cup of tea however, as one can never rule out abuse at some point in the future. The 'Stingray' type collection of cell phone calls discussed further above definitely raises questions of constitutionality. The fact that the police are reluctant about revealing details about this method suggests that they have doubts on that point as well, but are trying to hang on to what they regard as a useful technological edge.

Of course one cannot expect the investigative techniques of the police to remain stuck in the 19th century. However, if it were up to the State's various security minions, the methods they employ would not be subject to any legal limitations. From their perspective, anything that makes their job easier is a good thing to have.



(Photo via the Paramount Comedy Channel)


There are two points we want to make. The first one is: one can simply no longer expect that one's conversations, whether over telephone or mail, are safe and secure. Neither are other data such as one's movements – consider e.g. the nowadays ubiquitous tracking of license plates, another extremely dubious outgrowth of the modern surveillance state.  The default expectation nowadays must be that faceless bureaucrats are simply recording everything. They may not look at the information unless their keyword search algorithms detect something 'suspicious', but they are certainly storing it. The data can be accessed and used at anytime in the future.

Consider in this context that even the most law-abiding and harmless citizens are likely to frequently break laws or regulations inadvertently as a result of the flood of administrative law which pours forth every year in modern regulatory democracies. Moreover, no-one wants to share intimate personal information willy-nilly with strangers. With all these data being stored, every citizen therefore becomes potentially susceptible to blackmail. What if it is one day decided that one's political views are no longer 'welcome'?

The second point is this: for years there has been a strong tendency for the so-called 'trade-off between liberty and security' to be decided in favor of what is often a faux 'security'. Authoritarian regimes have been on the retreat globally, but democracies have concurrently adopted ever more authoritarian features. The justifications forwarded for this development have never made much sense. Yes, bad things can happen, and there are evil people in the world. But no government can protect its citizens against every evil. Furthermore, government is not some abstract entity that has automatically acquired innate 'goodness'. It is run by people, and as F.A. Hayek pointed out in the 'Road to Serfdom', in the realm of politics, it is usually the very worst people who rise to the top.  

In fact, since governments are not subject to the dictates of the free market, their provision of security and justice becomes ever more expensive while its quality is in continual decline. No-one would really want to live in a society in which the  'ideal' of 'perfect security' is actually realized anyway, since that would require a totalitarian state worse than anything that has been seen in history thus far.

Although Benjamin Franklin's famous quote about liberty and security is usually quoted outside of its historical context, is continues to be appropriate in this context: “They who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” 


(Cartoon by Marguliees)



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5 Responses to “The Wire Tapping Free-For-All”

  • zerobs:

    For instance, the FBI has reportedly been able to foil bank robbers by screening the information from tower dumps and cross-correlating cell-phone locations with the location of robberies.

    Sounds like baloney to me.

  • I am surprised so many people take the attitude, I’m not doing anything wrong, so I don’t mind. They should be saying, I’m not doing anything wrong, leave me alone and stay out of my business. If it is known the police are doing what they are doing, the real crooks will start leaving their phones behind or stealing phones to commit crimes. You can bet the license plates will be stolen as well. The cops will be putting the wrong people on trial, which they haven’t had a problem doing anyhow, as so many reversed convictions in recent years have shown.

    The best idea is to get rid of so many laws so people aren’t doing anything wrong to start. That would start with never electing another man President as we have had the past few terms. The one in the office now, seems to know no law, except what he wishes to force us to do. That is probably a good answer for No6

  • jimmyjames:

    It is run by people, and as F.A. Hayek pointed out in the ‘Road to Serfdom’, in the realm of politics, it is usually the very worst people who rise to the top.


    Old Fredrick nailed that one ..

    I’m wondering what it is they are so afraid of .. it can’t be the masses .. bread and circuses are working as well today as they were when Juvenal in 100 AD first wrote about that peculiar phenomena ..
    Could it be those tiny few out there .. who dare to live on the fringe?

  • No6:

    Fine article,
    One question, in what way would a fascist tyranny down the road differ from what the USA is today?

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