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Selling Out to Big Brother

by Robert Scheer for HUSTLER Magazine

The most sacred principle of American life, honored in our Constitution and throughout our history, is that of privacy—or as Larry Flynt puts it, “the right to be left alone.” But thanks to the information revolution, the government’s assault on privacy is now more pervasive, though largely invisible, than ever under any preexisting totalitarian government.

The tools of intrusion are so varied—beginning with Google searches and Facebook “likes” and extending to cellphone-position locators—that a full accounting of the postwiretap- era intrusion is not possible. But recent data on just one of the snooping techniques involving cellphones mocks the relatively minuscule power of any previous fascist or communist government to spy on its citizens.

Unbounded by the strict restraints that used to govern telephone wiretaps of old, today’s high-tech telecommunication companies are required by law to cooperate with all federal and state surveillance requests. We know just how pervasive that snooping through cellphone data is thanks to Representative Edward J. Markey (D-Massachusetts), co-chair of the Bipartisan Congressional Privacy Caucus, who released the government’s report to the New York Times.

“In the first public accounting of its kind,” the Times stated, “cellphone carriers reported that they responded to a startling 1.3 million demands for subscriber information last year [2011] from law-enforcement agencies seeking text messages, caller locations and other information in the course of investigations.” Because all of this surveillance has been conducted under the cloak of deepest government secrecy, there is no serious accountability as to why our right to privacy is being trampled upon so cavalierly. Indeed, as the Congressional report indicates, millions of us who are not even the target of any investigation are swept up in this surveillance. It’s more convenient for government snoops to make massive data dumps from cell towers, sweeping up all users in their wake rather than just isolating the person or persons suspected of malfeasance. Nor do the previous restraints on wiretapping that required a court order apply to these broad sweeps, which are clearly in violation of our Bill of Rights protections of individual freedom from arbitrary government intrusion.

Wiretapping of the kind you witnessed in old movies, with cops next door listening in on calls, is a thing of the past in the day of the cellphone. In 2011 that only happened 2,732 times, partially because of the inconvenience of needing a strictly governed court order and a surveillance outpost. Why worry about such legal niceties and the technical difficulty of a wiretap when law-enforcement officials can now request a data dump from a tower that happens to link the phone of a single suspect while receiving thousands of other folks’ information. All for the paltry cost of between $50 to $75 an hour they pay the obliging telecom company for the surveillance service.

That cellphone data can tell investigators everything about the life of unsuspecting and unsuspected citizens, from the food they order to the magazines and books they buy—not to mention all of their physical movements. The total totalitarian experience is now eminently affordable.

Technically cellphone carriers are required by federal law to obtain a search warrant, a subpoena or a court order, but that is easily violated in the broad scope of data dumps. In the case of the most rapidly growing intrusion into people’s personal lives, the use of GPS-generated data, there seems to be next to nothing in the way of legal restraint.

And, of course—as the George W. Bush administration established in its manic pursuit of terrorists—any claim that national security is involved gives government agencies full-throated permission to break down the walls around one’s private existence. When telecom companies were sued for cooperating on a massive level with the Bush government in wantonly reading the data of millions of Americans, Congress granted them immunity from lawsuits.

Sprint, the third-largest cellphone carrier, reported that it honors 1,500 data requests a day from federal, state and local police agencies. And since Sprint—like its counterparts— is paid for those searches, company officials are hardly inclined to complain on behalf of their customers, who might not want all of their data turned over.

The leading cellphone carriers have gone along with few complaints. As an AT&T subscriber, I was not thrilled to learn that law-enforcement agencies paid “my” phone company $8.3 million in 2011 to turn over subscriber data. A few of the smaller carriers have resisted. TracFone informed Representative Markey that the company “shares your concerns regarding the unauthorized tracking of wireless phones by law enforcement with little or no judicial oversight, and I assure you that TracFone does not participate in or condone such unauthorized tracking.”

Shouldn’t we all demand our cellphone carriers to endorse that Constitutionally protected standard our government has ruthlessly chosen to shred?


Before serving almost 30 years as a Los Angeles Times columnist and editor, Robert Scheer spent the late 1960s as Vietnam correspondent, managing editor and editor in chief of Ramparts magazine. Now editor of, Scheer has written such hardhitting books as The Pornography of Power: How Defense Hawks Hijacked 9/11 and Weakened America and his latest, The Great American Stick-Up: Greedy Bankers and the Politicians Who Love Them.

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