Is There Any Privacy In Your Cell Phone?

Filed under: Criminal Law, Litigation, News Tags: by Steven F. Fairlie @ October 14, 2011

Many people do not know that cell phone companies retain data which can provide law enforcement with the location of a cell phone at the time of every call made from it.

In September, thirty-five affiliates of the ACLU sent 381 requests to local law enforcement agencies to find out when, why, and how cell phones are used to track Americans.  They claimed that the government is often able to use outdated privacy laws to obtain information pinpointing where a person used his cell phone from the cell phone providers without obtaining warrants.  The ACLU of North Carolina received a 2010 report from the Department of Justice entitled, “Retention Periods of Major Cellular Service Providers.”  This document compared how long Verizon, T-Mobile, AT&T/Cingular, Sprint, Nextel, and Virgin Mobile store various types of data related to cell phone use.   

The greatest insight gained from this document is that there is absolutely no standard.  This holds not just across the companies, but also within the various companies.  For example, T-Mobile claims to only retain data about which cell towers are used by a phone for 4-6 months.  In actuality, they retain this information for a year or even more.  Another example of discrepancies across companies is that some companies do not retain the content of text messages, while others retain that information for 90 days.  Not only do cell phone companies retain information about where cell phone users are (this is determined by which cell phone towers a phone used), who a cell phone user texted or called, or the content of a text message, they also retain details about the internet usage on a phone.  Most of the companies retain at least some records of what websites were visited on a phone. 

This lack of a standard makes it difficult for citizens to know exactly what information is being recorded about them and how that information is being used.  Moreover, there is currently no effort in the U.S. Congress to create a standard.  The ACLU claims that Americans have the right to know how long phone companies keep records, but with no clear standard this is hard to truly ascertain.  There needs to be a clear standard so that Americans know explicitly how the data relating to their individual cell phone use is being recorded and for how long it is being recorded.

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