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Tuesday, June 20, 2006

"Quicker and Easier Than Subpoenas" 

What ho! Let's review a couple of points we like to harp on from time to time, one of those times being tonight:

1) While (increasingly enfeebled) laws exist to prevent federal agencies from delving too deeply into the private affairs of American citizens, private companies are for the most part bound by no such regulations.

2) Most of our readers typically carry, on their persons, a remote-tracking device that allows the government to follow their movements at any time. It is a handy, portable gadget commonly known as the cellular phone:
Numerous federal and local law enforcement agencies have bypassed subpoenas and warrants designed to protect civil liberties and gathered Americans' personal telephone records from private-sector data brokers.

These brokers, many of whom advertise aggressively on the Internet, have gotten into customer accounts online, tricked phone companies into revealing information and even acknowledged that their practices violate laws, according to documents gathered by congressional investigators and provided to The Associated Press.

The law enforcement agencies include offices in the Homeland Security Department and Justice Department--including the FBI and U.S. Marshal's Service--and municipal police departments in California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia and Utah. Experts believe hundreds of other departments frequently use such services . . . .

Congressional investigators estimated the U.S. government spent $30 million last year buying personal data from private brokers. But that number likely understates the breadth of transactions, since brokers said they rarely charge law enforcement agencies any price.

PDJ said it always provided help to police for free. "Agencies from all across the country took advantage of it," said PDJ's lawyer, Larry Slade of Los Angeles . . . .

[Rep. Ed Whitfield, R-KY] said laws on the subject are vague: "There's a good chance there are some laws being broken, but it's not really clear precisely which laws."

Targets of the police interest include alleged marijuana smugglers, car thieves, armed thugs and others. The data services also are enormously popular among banks and other lenders, private detectives and suspicious spouses. Customers included:
  • A U.S. Labor Department employee who used her government e-mail address and phone number to buy two months of personal cellular phone records of a woman in New Jersey.

  • A buyer who received credit card information about the father of murder victim Jon Benet Ramsey.

  • A buyer who obtained 20 printed pages of phone calls by pro basketball player Damon Jones of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The athlete was "shocked to learn somebody had obtained this information," said Mark Termini, his lawyer and agent in Cleveland. "When a person or agency is able to obtain by fraudulent means a person's personal information, that is something that should be prohibited by law."
UPDATE (6/21): David Lazarus of the S.F. Chronicle reports that a new AT&T policy, scheduled to take effect this Friday, would require customers to sign away their privacy rights as a condition of service:
The new policy says that AT&T -- not customers -- owns customers' confidential info and can use it "to protect its legitimate business interests, safeguard others, or respond to legal process."

The policy also indicates that AT&T will track the viewing habits of customers of its new video service -- something that cable and satellite providers are prohibited from doing . . . .

The company's policy overhaul follows recent reports that AT&T was one of several leading telecom providers that allowed the National Security Agency warrantless access to its voice and data networks as part of the Bush administration's war on terror.

"They're obviously trying to avoid a hornet's nest of consumer-protection lawsuits," said Chris Hoofnagle, a San Francisco privacy consultant and former senior counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

"They've written this new policy so broadly that they've given themselves maximum flexibility when it comes to disclosing customers' records," he said.

AT&T is being sued by San Francisco's Electronic Frontier Foundation for allegedly allowing the NSA to tap into the company's data network, providing warrantless access to customers' e-mails and Web browsing.

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