Is Big Brother Watching You By Geolocation Of Your Cell Phone?

Sarah Lai Stirland of TPM Idea Lab:

U.S. authorities might have the legal authority to track Americans’ movements within the United States through their cell phones, according to Matt Olsen, the National Security Agency’s general counsel.

Olsen made the comment during a confirmation hearing Tuesday morning in front of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. President Obama has nominated him to lead the National Counterterrorism Center.

Not to worry, though: this only affects cell phone users… in other words, every American from about age 5 to 95.

Just for clarification: I do not object to tracking someone under the authority of a duly issued warrant in the course of a criminal investigation. Otherwise, it’s damned spooky to wonder why your government is following your movements.

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  • upyernoz  On Wednesday July 27, 2011 at 10:10 am

    don’t get me wrong, i think the fourth amendment of the constitution clearly prohibits the government from tracking me from my cell phone without a warrant. but putting that aside, if they are tracking me, what a phenomenal waste of time and resources! i hope they enjoy my boring life

    (the one exciting thing i did, spend 8 months of last year in kazakhstan, would not have been trackable. i left my iphone at home to avoid the outrageous international roaming charges that u.s. carriers charge, brought my unlocked GSM phone and bought a local SIM card in kaz)

    • Steve  On Wednesday July 27, 2011 at 10:22 am

      ‘noz, that’s the problem with virtually the whole “war on a noun,” as the late great Molly Ivins used to call it: the problem is virtually never obtaining more data; the problem is making the right connections among the data we have. More haystacks do not help you find the needle.

      I’ve been rereading Jane Mayer’s The Dark Side, noticing this time through just how painfully obvious in retrospect this problem was in the case of the 9/11 hijackings: all the pieces were there, all in the hands of various federal officials, but turf wars, ineffective leadership and utter indifference by the man at the top (“All right, you’ve covered your ass now…”) combined to render all that information useless in preventing the worst terrorist attack ever.

      Anyone involved in the physical sciences, and most in the social sciences, have stories to tell of exactly that phenomenon. On my blogroll, you may want to visit The Mermaid’s Tale, a blog of commentary about the practice of science written by three of the finest scholars I ever had the privilege of working for. (Well, two of them, anyway, Weiss and Buchanan. I haven’t met the third one.)

  • jams o donnell  On Wednesday July 27, 2011 at 10:26 am

    It’s forbidden here I think… unless you were a News of the World hack

    • Steve  On Wednesday July 27, 2011 at 10:36 am

      jams, I’d be willing to bet that it is forbidden in every society that enjoys some flavor of English law. And there’s no guarantee that this NSA lawyer is correct when he says that the authority is available in the U.S. If one must obtain a warrant to hide an old-fashioned tracking radio in a suspect’s car, surely the fact that the “radio” is a personal comm device can’t be legally distinguished from the old case, can it? (Honest answer: I don’t know, and I don’t trust those guys to play straight with us.)

  • MandT  On Wednesday July 27, 2011 at 7:23 pm

    If technology is that available, then it would be possible for a state terrorist to hack, track and attempt to assassinate. That’s comforting..

    • Steve  On Wednesday July 27, 2011 at 11:01 pm

      MandT, no doubt that’s true. But I am more concerned about the collection of data about individuals for NO specified purpose. At least if the state wants to target some person, there’s some chance… it has happened… that the state could be compelled to obtain a warrant, as the Constitution requires. But my distaste is for the gathering of information about individuals… where they go, what they do, etc. … outside the context of any legitimate criminal investigation.

      Why does anyone care where I go? For about two years, until last Thursday, I never left Houston, mainly for health reasons; as ‘noz said, my whereabouts must have been painfully boring to a tracker. But then why would they assert the authority to track me? Privacy includes the right “to be let alone,” as some former Supreme Court justice said… if no one needs to know where I go for purposes of a criminal investigation, then I should be able to go effectively anywhere without being tracked. And if they insist on tracking me, they should have to obtain a warrant.

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