Huffpost Technology
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

John W. Whitehead Headshot

The Corporate Surveillance State: How the Thought Police Use Your Cell Phone to Track Your Every Move

Posted: Updated:

"There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. But at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You had to live -- did live, from habit that became instinct -- in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized." -- George Orwell, 1984

Advanced technology now provides government agents and police officers with the ability to track our every move. The surveillance state is our new society. It is here, and it is spying on you, your family and your friends every day. Worse yet, those in control are using life's little conveniences, namely cell phones, to do much of the spying. And worst of all, the corporations who produce these little conveniences are happy to hand your personal information over to the police so long as their profit margins increase. To put it simply, the corporate-surveillance state is in full effect, and there is nowhere to hide.

Using the data transferred from, received by, and stored in your cell phone, police are now able to track your every move. Your texts, web browsing, and geographic location are all up for grabs. Using "stingray" devices, often housed in mobile surveillance vans, federal agents track the cell phones of unsuspecting people. By triangulating the source of a cell phone signal, agents are able to track down the whereabouts of the person holding it. These surveillance sweeps target all cell phone signals, not just those of criminal suspects. Examples of extralegal police surveillance in the years since 9/11 are numerous, from the NSA's warrantless wiretapping program to the NYPD's spy network that targeted Muslims in the New York area.

Unfortunately, the now widespread tactic of spying on people via their cell phones resides in a legal grey area, which has allowed police agencies to take drastic steps to record the daily activity of all Americans. Whereas cell phone tracking once fell only in the purview of federal agents, local police departments, big and small, are beginning to engage in cell phone tracking with little to no oversight. Small police agencies are shelling out upwards of $244,000 to get the technology necessary to track cell phones. And as you might expect, most police departments have attempted to keep knowledge of their cell phone tracking programs secret, fearing (as they should) a public backlash.

Federal courts are divided on the issue, some saying that a warrant is necessary before executing a cell phone search. However, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit recently ruled that tracking the location of a cell phone without a warrant is legal and, thus, not a violation of the Fourth Amendment. This lack of concern for the Fourth Amendment -- which requires reasonable suspicion that you're up to something illegal before the police conduct surveillance on you -- is widely shared among the federal and state courts. In fact, courts issue tens of thousands of cell tracking orders a year, allowing police agencies to accurately pinpoint people's locations within meters. Unless they're charged with a crime, most people remain unaware that their cell data has been tracked.

Although government agencies are increasingly acquiring the technology to track cell phones themselves, most rely on cell phone companies to provide them with the user data. In July 2012, it was revealed that cell phone carriers had responded to an astonishing 1.3 million requests from police agencies for personal information taken from people's cell phones. One of the larger carriers, AT&T, responds to roughly 700 requests a day, 230 of which are so-called "emergencies," exempting them from standard court orders. This number has tripled since 2007. A relatively small carrier, C Spire Wireless, said that it received 12,500 requests in 2011. Sprint received the most requests, averaging 1,500 per day. The number of requests is almost certainly higher than 1.3 million, and the number of people affected much higher, because a single request often involves targeting multiple people.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the telecommunications companies which produce cell phone technology are more than happy to comply with government requests for personal information. They even make a handsome profit from selling the details of your private life to the government. Indeed, cell phone carriers are making a killing charging police agencies "surveillance fees" -- from a few hundred to a few thousands dollars per request--to share information on a person's location and activities. AT&T collected $8.3 million in 2011 for their surveillance activities, up from $2.8 million in 2007.

Telecommunications providers have also come up with price lists for easy reference for police agencies. For example, "Sprint charged $120 per target number for 'Pictures and Video,' $60 for 'E-Mail,' $60 for 'Voicemail,' and $30 for 'SMS Content.'" Sprint actually has 110 employees who work solely on responding to information requests from the government. And government agents need not worry about maximizing resources by seeking only high priority targets. One agent can track 200 or 300 people at a time.

On the rare occasion that a telecom corporation resists a police effort to spy on a particular cell phone customer, there are methods by which companies are coerced to comply with the data requests. Telecoms are frequently harassed by the FBI with National Security Letters (NSL), which are demands for user information without warrant or judicial oversight. These include a gag order, which prevents the recipient from discussing the demand with others, including the media. Roughly 300,000 of these NSLs have been sent out since 2000, implying a massive spying effort on the part of the federal government. One telecom is currently in a battle with the federal government over an NSL demanding user data. The telecom refused to abide by the NSL, and in response the federal government has sued the telecom, insisting that their refusal jeopardizes national security. The end logic of this is that our private data is actually not private. The federal government claims that knowing our personal information is critical to preserving national security, and thus neither telecoms nor users may resist the sharing of that information.

Of course, corporations are just as interested in tracking people's daily activities as the government. Cell phone companies and the software companies that create applications for their devices track your personal information so that they can market their services to you. Unfortunately, this leads to mass aggregation of user data which is then used by government agents to spy on and track all cell phone users. For example, Carrier IQ, a software company, and cell phone manufacturers HTC and Samsung are currently in the midst of a class-action lawsuit brought by Android phone users whose phone activities are recorded by a "rootkit," a piece of software surreptitiously installed on cell phones that records the keystrokes of phone users. The FBI denied a December 2011 FOIA request to determine how the government was utilizing Carrier IQ's software, as it could have an adverse impact on ongoing investigations. The agency's refusal suggests that not only is Carrier IQ spying on cell phone users for their corporate purposes, but that federal agents are utilizing the software to conduct their own spying campaigns.

Unfortunately, with intelligence gathering and surveillance doing booming business, and corporations rolling out technologies capable of filtering through vast reams of data, tapping into underseas communication cables, and blocking websites for entire countries, life as we know it will only get worse. As journalist Pratap Chatterjee has noted, "[T]hese tools have the potential to make computer cables as dangerous as police batons." Telecoms hold on to user data, including text messages and Internet browsing history, for months to years at a time. This, of course, has some ominous implications. For example, British researchers have created an algorithm that accurately predicts someone's future whereabouts at a certain time based upon where she and her friends have been in the past.

So where does this leave us? As George Orwell warned, you have to live with the assumption that everything you do, say and see is being tracked by those who run the corporate surveillance state.

From Our Partners