Wireless monitoring. It has an ominous ring to it. If you’ve been following the Blackberry mobile privacy battle between RIM, the United Arab Emirates, India and other nations, you might think wireless monitoring of mobile phones is limited to a few countries.
Wireless Monitoring in Democratic Countries
Unfortunately, it’s not. The United States, the U.K. and other democracies have been trying to intercept phone calls, emails, cell phone location and more for decades.
Interest by government telecommunications regulators breaks down into four types:
- Knowing cell phone locations through carrier triangulation and GPS
- Obtaining cell phone records showing call activity (time, date and location of calls)
- Listening to private phone conversations
- Intercepting voice and data communications, including emails and website browsing patterns
Cell Phone Wireless Monitoring and Security Threats
Harry Truman in 1952 created the NSA (National Security Agency) in the U.S. to protect our country from foreign security threats. In 1975, a Congressional investigation revealed that the NSA had been intercepting international communications, mainly requested by the CIA, without warrants for over 20 years.
Code-named “Shamrock,” the abuses uncovered by Congress led to new legislation to protect Americans with the passage of the American Foreign Surveillance Act or FISA. A lengthy USA Today article summarizes the chronology.
In September, 2001, the U.S. was attacked by terrorists destroying the World Trade Center, damaging a Pentagon building, downing multiple jet airliners and causing thousands of deaths. Later that year, Congress passed the USA Patriot Act giving broader powers to Federal and other agencies to intercept telephone, email and other personal records.
Verizon Wireless and Cingular (AT&T) Involvement
The New York Times reported in December, 2005 that three Federal judges had denied the right of law enforcement agencies to obtain location information and cell phone records without “probable cause,” the same standard required for search warrants. Verizon Wireless and Cingular (now AT&T Mobility) had regularly supplied this information when ordered by a court. Around this time, prosecutors also unsuccessfully argued that the USA Patriot Act permitted release of wireless information.
In 2007, the ACLU and Electronic Frontier Foundation filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the Department of Justice. The groups claimed some government officials believed showing “probable cause” was unnecessary to obtain warrants for wireless monitoring of information when investigating crimes.
Mexico Releases Cell Phone National Registries
Starting around 2008, several countries either passed legislation requiring cell phone registration or launched national registries tying phones to their owners. Pre-paid cellular plans were mainly targeted due to assumed use by criminals to avoid identification.
Mexico passed fingerprint legislation in 2008 to combat increased kidnapping. In the same year, the U.K. created a national registry with a push for passport ID’s before obtaining a cell phone. A year later, Greece required pre-paid phone purchase identification.
Fourth Amendment Rights and Cell Phones
The Obama Administration and Federal Agencies became more aggressive in their belief that wireless monitoring and revealing phone information without warrants don’t violate Fourth Amendment Rights in the U.S.
In one case, Obama and Federal agencies said cell phone tracking is legal since Americans have no “reasonable expectation of privacy” when using mobile phones. DOJ lawyers concurred saying “a customer’s Fourth Amendment rights are not violated when the phone company reveals to the government its own records” showing where wireless device owners placed and received calls.
Government “Deep Package Inspection”
Outside the U.S. foreign governments have coerced mobile operators, handset manufacturers and networking companies to help block and intercept voice and data communications. The most infamous is, without question, Iran which forced Siemens AG and Nokia to sell “deep package inspection” equipment in 2008.
As the Wall Street Journal reported in 2009, the technology enables Iranian scanning of keywords across social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter. Per the report:
“Deep packet inspection involves inserting equipment into a flow of online data, from emails and Internet phone calls to images and messages on social-networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Every digitized packet of online data is deconstructed, examined for keywords and reconstructed within milliseconds. In Iran’s case, this is done for the entire country at a single choke point, according to networking engineers familiar with the country’s system.”
Bloomberg Businessweek reported in June, 2009 that the U.S. and other governments have the same technology as Iran to intercept and examine voice and data traffic. Government officials claim the Communications Assistance to Law Enforcement Act of 1994 legalizes intercepting cell phone data.
“In response to concerns that emerging technologies such as digital and wireless communications were making it increasingly difficult for law enforcement agencies to execute authorized surveillance, Congress enacted CALEA on October 25, 1994. CALEA was intended to preserve the ability of law enforcement agencies to conduct electronic surveillance by requiring that telecommunications carriers and manufacturers of telecommunications equipment modify and design their equipment, facilities, and services to ensure that they have the necessary surveillance capabilities.”
RIM BlackBerry Pushed by Governments for Data
As you can see, government wireless monitoring of emails and other Internet data routed through RIM’s secure servers is a continuation of mobile phone surveillance with one difference. RIM, manufacturer of all BlackBerry’s, claims that its enterprise encryption (BES) keys block all information access to RIM, the carriers or anyone else.
According to Reuters, RIM offered to give IP addresses of enterprise servers, PINS and IMEI numbers of BlackBerry users to India, but officials responded that the information wasn’t adequate because terrorists can elude government tracking due to RIM’s data encryption.
Both officials within Saudi Arabia and India are demanding RIM install local proxy servers that would compromise BlackBerry user email and other encrypted data. At this time, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is intervening on RIM’s behalf.
The Future of Wireless Monitoring
We live in a world of six+ billion cell phones, rapidly growing demand for information services–especially mobile Internet access–and government demands for user data. Mobile technology has simultaneously improved communications among peoples across the globe while raising government desire to use the same technology for wireless monitoring.
Mobile social media have encouraged people to share personal information with friends while expecting privacy. All countries, whether democratic or dictatorial, have a need to protect themselves from those who would do them harm. Yet some countries seek to restrict wireless information or monitor its use for political rather than protective reasons.
One thing is clear. Mobile technology will rapidly continue growing worldwide. Consumers will demand more features, as demonstrated by incessant demand for smartphones and other wireless devices. Meanwhile, government telecommunications agencies and political leaders have their own agendas. Only time will tell if mobile customers and government rulers can coexist in the exploding wireless communications revolution.