Amid all the furor over the Bush administration's warrantless wiretapping
program a few years ago, a mini-revolt was brewing over another type of federal
snooping that was getting no public attention at all. Federal prosecutors were
seeking what seemed to be unusually sensitive records: internal data from
telecommunications companies that showed the locations of their customers' cell
phones—sometimes in real time, sometimes after the fact. The prosecutors said
they needed the records to trace the movements of suspected drug traffickers,
human smugglers, even corrupt public officials. But many federal
magistrates—whose job is to sign off on search warrants and handle other routine
court duties—were spooked by the requests. Some in New York, Pennsylvania, and
Texas balked. Prosecutors "were using the cell phone as a surreptitious tracking
device," said Stephen W. Smith, a federal magistrate in Houston. "And I started
asking the U.S. Attorney's Office, 'What is the legal authority for this? What
is the legal standard for getting this information?' "
Those questions are now at the core of a constitutional clash between
President Obama's Justice Department and civil libertarians alarmed by what they
see as the government's relentless intrusion into the private lives of citizens.
There are numerous other fronts in the privacy wars—about the content of
e-mails, for instance, and access to bank records and credit-card transactions.
The Feds now can quietly get all that information. But cell-phone tracking is
among the more unsettling forms of government surveillance, conjuring up
Orwellian images of Big Brother secretly following your movements through the
small device in your pocket.
How many of the owners of the country's 277 million cell phones even know
that companies like AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint can track their devices in
real time? Most "don't have a clue."
Do you trust big brother?