Cell phone tracking creates new need for balancing act

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

It's a plot George Orwell would love.

Every citizen is issued a device that keeps track of his every move, stores his personal information, controls his banking accounts, knows who he knows, what he says to them, where he shops, what he buys and what games and hobbies he enjoys in his spare time.

Oh, and he has to pay up to hundreds of dollars a month for it. Talk about an individual mandate!

You've probably already guessed, the device is a cell phone, "smart" phone or not, and it is a rare person who doesn't have one in a pocket, purse, or strapped on a hip.

According to the International Telecommunication Union, there were 6 billion mobile subscriptions at the end of 2011, the equivalent of 87 percent of the world population. That's ballooning from 5.4 billion in 2010 and 4.7 billion in 2009.

It's only natural that officials who want to find people, for whatever reason, turn to cellular phone records for information.

U.S. Rep. Edward J. Markey asked nine major carriers just how many requests they got for cell phone tracking to help with investigations by law enforcement agencies, seeking text messages, caller locations and other information.

"I never expected it to be this massive," said Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat. AT&T gets more than 700 requests a day, about 230 of them considered emergencies that do not require the normal court orders and subpoenas.

Cell phone tracking is great for following leads, identifying associates and gathering data an all types of crimes. There's some type of mobile device at every crime scene, noted one prosecutor.

The system is vulnerable to abuse, especially in the area of anti terrorism or if co-opted for political dirty tricks.

Few would object to its use for tracking teens or runaways, however, and that's where the balancing act begins.

And, it's not without cost, especially for small agencies -- the typical carrier charges $50 to $75 an hour for cellphone tower "dumps."

The ACLU is concerned, of course, worried that local and state police agencies claim more powers to obtain cell records than courts should allow, and may maintain records on law-abiding citizens inappropriately.

As the person-cell phone ratio approaches one-to-one, there's a new tight rope to walk in the balance between civil liberties and the convenience of technology.

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