Watching Big Brother: The cops and cell phones in the U.S., the U.K.’s monitoring plans

What price security?

• In the United States, police are widely and “aggressively” tracking cell phones, the New York Times reported over the weekend. Law enforcement says the technology is especially useful for emergencies; documents obtained by the ACLU show police departments large and small are increasingly using cell-phone tracking in non-emergency situations, and without warrants.

The NYT article explores uncertainty over laws relating to such surveillance, which mostly involved tracking locations and looking at phone records but not warrantless wiretapping, according to the ACLU documents. In some cases, according to the article, officers were warned not to mention the use of cell-phone tracking to the public, media and in police reports.

In January, the Supreme Court ruled against warrantless GPS tracking. The case involved law enforcement installing a GPS device on a suspect’s car to track him, something the court said violated the Fourth Amendment.  But the decision did not put to rest broader questions about law enforcement’s use of technology vs. citizens’ right to privacy. The NYT report underscores Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s point that “physical intrusion is now unnecessary to many forms of surveillance.” (See Privacy: GPS ruling follow-up…)

• In the U.K., the government is pushing for increased monitoring of citizens’ phone calls, emails, texts and online communications in an effort to “go after terrorists and serious criminals,” according to Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg. But critics say the proposal represents a “very, very big widening of powers”; a similar effort reportedly was rejected by Germany’s supreme court a couple of years ago.

An executive for an Internet service provider told the Telegraph that besides putting the U.K. on track to be mentioned in the same breath as  “the likes of China and Iran,” the tracking proposal also is “impractical” and could drive the increased use of technology that helps provide anonymity on the Web. That in turn could cause longer-term security problems, he says.


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  • Bryan Harrison

    Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.

    -Benjamin Franklin, 1759