Privacy SOS

Cops want your mobile phone data. Here’s what they can get.

As the ACLU made clear this week via its records dump on police mobile phone tracking nationwide, law enforcement has a keen interest in spying on us by way of our cellular phones. And it's no wonder: as this NTI Law Enforcement Systems and Services cellular phone investigations manual says, 

Cellular phones have become the virtual biographer of our daily activities. It tracks who we talk to and where we are. It will log calls, take pictures and keep our contact list close at hand. In short it has become an indispensible piece of evidence in a criminal investigation.

The guide instructs police in the most effective procedures through which to obtain the most information possible from cell phone companies about suspects (and others). Among the different kinds of data it advises police ask for are:

  1. Subscriber information (name, address, phone numbers and other personally identifying information);
  2. Account comments (any notes made by customer service representatives when a customer calls them);
  3. Credit information (credit reports);
  4. Billing records;
  5. Outbound and inbound call details (real time);
  6. Call origination/termination location (gives location information on cell sites used, length of call, date, time and numbers dialed);
  7. Any other cellular telephone numbers that dial the same numbers as the target number (in other words if you called the ACLU all the time and you are the target of the police investigation, they'd be able to ask AT&T or Verizon for all of the other numbers that called the ACLU);
  8. Subscriber information on any cellular numbers that the target dials (so for example if the target uses an AT&T phone, police could ask for subscriber information on any other AT&T customers the target has called);
  9. All stored communications or files, including voice mail, email, digital images, buddy lists, and any other files associated with phone numbers, email addresses, or [social media?] accounts;
  10. All connection logs and records of user activity for each such account including the "destination IP address" of any computer that the target communicated with (for example if the target used Twitter on her phone and "connected" with someone via mobile Twitter, does that mean the police can request the other person's IP information via the phone company?);
  11. All archived account information;
  12. Personal Unlock Keys for SIM cards;
  13. All connection logs and records of user activity for a specific cell tower for a given time period.

The last item is shocking. It basically means that police can request from telephone companies subscriber information connected to every single phone that was in a physical location at a specific time. So if you are in the vicinity of a crime but have no idea what's going on next door, don't be surprised if you get a visit from the police. (Note to activists: leave your phone at home if you think you'll be in the vicinity of any property or other crimes.)

The manual also looks at procedures for accessing information stored on mobile phones themselves. When it comes to iPhones and other smartphones, police and prosecutors can fish quite a lot of data out of them, including:

As countless live-streamed rebellions over the past year have shown us, technology has liberatory potential. But be careful. Your phone is watching you, too.

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.