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“Tower dump” of consumer mobile data a popular police snooping tactic


New reports have revealed the extent to which local law enforcement engage in mass collection of consumer cell phone data to aid in their investigations.

Days after news surfaced about the National Security Agency's amassing of nearly five billion phone records daily to carry out location-based tracking, stats have emerged on the privacy-invading presence of police gathering mobile data.

On Sunday, USA Today published an article detailing the findings, which were gleaned from public records obtained by the outlet and Gannett newspapers and TV stations.

The records revealed that, among more than 125 law enforcement agencies in 33 states, one in every four used a surveillance tactic called “tower dump.” The method gives police access to “identity, activity and location” data of users and makes use of “multiple [cell phone] towers, and wireless providers, and can net information from thousands of phones,” the article said.

In addition, records showed that at least 25 police departments own a Stingray device – which essentially operates as a fake cell phone tower in order to siphon data from nearby phones that connect to it.

“In some states, the devices are available to any local police department via state surveillance units,” the article said. “The federal government funds most of the purchases via anti-terror grants.”

Last Wednesday, classified documents obtained by The Washington Post revealed how location-based mobile data, in particular, was of interest to NSA. Using a tool called “Co-Traveler,” the agency is able to gather insight on cell phone users' travels and habits by “tapping into cables” connecting mobile networks around the world, including those that service U.S. phones, leaks from NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden showed.

On Monday, Catherine Crump, a staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), told that uncovered mobile tracking methods require a “national debate about whether these types of mass surveillance tactics are ever appropriate,” she said.

“Surveillance technologies that are being used today are extremely powerful, and whatever you think about their use to stop serious crimes, it's worrying when even more minor offenses are being investigated using these technologies,” Crump explained.

Hanni Fakoury, a staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) pointed out in a Monday interview that the NSA and law enforcement agencies carried an overarching privacy risk for innocent cell phone users entangled in the mass collection practices.

“I think that they are similar in idea,” Fakoury said of NSA's “co-traveler” tactics and the “tower dump” methods employed by police – “meaning you grab lots of [information] in order to sift through the data you want.”

Several major wireless carriers, including Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile, recently provided information on law enforcement requests received in 2012. Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., requested the information for the second year in a row, and revealed the findings on Monday.

The wireless providers received 1.1 million federal, state and local law enforcement requests for cell phone records, Markey found. There were also around 9,000 cell tower dumps that year, among companies that turned over the information.

For providing the data, T-Mobile received $11 million from law enforcement, while AT&T received $10 million. Verizon was paid around $5 million in 2012.

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