Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Incentivizing Intrusion

I just saw this article on yet more warrantless electronic surveillance.

What surprises me here isn't that police officers are tracking cell phone locations without warrants. What surprises me is a little throwaway piece of background information:

"The practice is so common that cell phone companies have manuals for police explaining what data the companies store, how much they charge police to access that data, and what officers need to do to get it.... Costs can range up to several hundred dollars for each request."
(Emphasis added, internal link omitted)

On the one hand, it makes sense for the government to reimburse business owners for records requests. It takes time and company resources to track a cell phone.

But on the other hand, this seems to create a profit motive for cell phone companies to encourage more records requests, and to look the other way when the requesting officer doesn't have the appropriate authorization.

If you look at how the fees are structured, it certainly seems like the cell companies must be making money from these requests. They charge activation fees, per use fees, premium fees for access to data and voice traffic, and on and on. T-Mobile charges $100 per day for access to a customer's location data. That's more than my smartphone bill for an entire month.

If cell providers are making money giving out customers' data without legal authorization, that's a serious problem. I want a lot more information about the profit margins on these fees, and now I'm curious about industry lobbying groups' involvement in the underlying regulations, too. This doesn't smell right.

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