Three Keys to Surveillance Success: Location, Location, Location

The invaluable Chris Soghoian has posted some illuminating—and sobering—information on the scope of surveillance being carried out with the assistance of telecommunications providers.  The entire panel discussion from this year’s ISS World surveillance conference is well worth listening to in full, but surely the most striking item is a direct quotation from Sprint’s head of electronic surveillance:

[M]y major concern is the volume of requests. We have a lot of things that are automated but that’s just scratching the surface. One of the things, like with our GPS tool. We turned it on the web interface for law enforcement about one year ago last month, and we just passed 8 million requests. So there is no way on earth my team could have handled 8 million requests from law enforcement, just for GPS alone. So the tool has just really caught on fire with law enforcement. They also love that it is extremely inexpensive to operate and easy, so, just the sheer volume of requests they anticipate us automating other features, and I just don’t know how we’ll handle the millions and millions of requests that are going to come in.

To be clear, that doesn’t mean they are giving law enforcement geolocation data on 8 million people. He’s talking about the wonderful automated backend Sprint runs for law enforcement, LSite, which allows investigators to rapidly retrieve information directly, without the burden of having to get a human being to respond to every specific request for data.  Rather, says Sprint, each of those 8 million requests represents a time when an FBI computer or agent pulled up a target’s location data using their portal or API. (I don’t think you can Tweet subpoenas yet.)  For an investigation whose targets are under ongoing realtime surveillance over a period of weeks or months, that could very well add up to hundreds or thousands of requests for a few individuals. So those 8 million data requests, according to a Sprint representative in the comments, actually “only” represent “several thousand” discrete cases.

As Kevin Bankston argues, that’s not entirely comforting. The Justice Department, Soghoian points out, is badly delinquent in reporting on its use of pen/trap orders, which are generally used to track communications routing information like phone numbers and IP addresses, but are likely to be increasingly used for location tracking. And recent changes in the law may have made it easier for intelligence agencies to turn cell phones into tracking devices.  In the criminal context, the legal process for getting geolocation information depends on a variety of things—different districts have come up with different standards, and it matters whether investigators want historical records about a subject or ongoing access to location info in real time. Some courts have ruled that a full-blown warrant is required in some circumstances, in other cases a “hybrid” order consisting of a pen/trap order and a 2703(d) order. But a passage from an Inspector General’s report suggests that the 2005 PATRIOT reauthorization may have made it easier to obtain location data:

After passage of the Reauthorization Act on March 9, 2006, combination orders became unnecessary for subscriber information and [REDACTED PHRASE]. Section 128 of the Reauthorization Act amended the FISA statute to authorize subscriber information to be provided in response to a pen register/trap and trace order. Therefore, combination orders for subscriber information were no longer necessary. In addition, OIPR determined that substantive amendments to the statute undermined the legal basis for which OIPR had received authorization [REDACTED PHRASE] from the FISA Court. Therefore, OIPR decided not to request [REDACTED PHRASE] pursuant to Section 215 until it re-briefed the issue for the FISA Court. As a result, in 2006 combination orders were submitted to the FISA Court only from January 1, 2006, through March 8, 2006.

The new statutory language permits FISA pen/traps to get more information than is allowed under a traditional criminal pen/trap, with a lower standard of review, including “any temporarily assigned network address or associated routing or transmission information.” Bear in mind that it would have made sense to rely on a 215 order only if the information sought was more extensive than what could be obtained using a National Security Letter, which requires no judicial approval. That makes it quite likely that it’s become legally easier to transform a cell phone into a tracking device even as providers are making it point-and-click simple to log into their servers and submit automated location queries.  So it’s become much more  urgent that the Justice Department start living up to its obligation to start telling us how often they’re using these souped-up pen/traps, and how many people are affected.  In congressional debates, pen/trap orders are invariably mischaracterized as minimally intrusive, providing little more than the list of times and phone numbers they produced 30 years ago.  If they’re turning into a plug-and-play solution for lojacking the population, Americans ought to know about it.

If you’re interested enough in this stuff to have made it through that discussion, incidentally, come check out our debate at Cato this afternoon, either in the flesh or via webcast. There will be a simultaneous “tweetchat” hosted by the folks at Get FISA Right.