Warrantless Cellphone “Tower Dumps” Becoming Go-To Tool For Law Enforcement

By | December 6, 2013

… The Richland County Sheriff’s Department used Tower Dumps during the investigation into a string of car breakins, where weapons and computers were stolen. They combined the Tower Dump information with DNA evidence and in 2011 arrested Phillip Tate on three counts of “breaking and entering a motor vehicle” and one count of “larceny.”

“He did break and enter into both of those vehicles, one of them being the vehicle of Sheriff Lott. It was parked at his house,” said Fifth Circuit Solicitor Joanna McDuffy in court. “It was his sheriff department issued vehicle. Weapons were taken from that vehicle your honor.”

Search warrants we found say Richland Sheriff’s investigators requested dumps on two cell phone towers during their investigation.

Cops seeking to use these tower dumps just can’t call up the provider and ask for them. But neither do they have to jump through the probable cause hoops a warrant entails. All they need is a court order, which is considerably easier to obtain than a warrant, thanks to the (somewhat ironically-named) Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986.

The Richland PD is just one of several law enforcement entities making frequent use of these untargeted, unminimized data dumps. And the numbers keep increasing every year.

In 2011, AT&T and Verizon received 1.3 million requests for cell phone data (many of which were tower dumps) and filled more than 500,000 of them. Verizon estimates that over the last 5 years, law enforcement’s tower dump requests have increased by 15% annually. T-Mobile reported increases of approximately 12%-16%.

Thanks to the ease of obtaining tower dumps, it’s becoming a go-to tool for law enforcement. Not only can they collect these without needing to show probable cause, they’re also under no obligation to inform any of the millions of unrelated cellphone customers whose information they’ve obtained that they’ve swept up their data.

Oddly enough, someone from the counterterrorism community is being the voice of reason in all this.

“In recognizing that it’s not just the CIA or FBI tracking a terrorist that may have flown over here, this is local law enforcement. As citizens, we sort of have a question: how often is this happening?” said Keith Pounds, president of counterrorism consulting firm Countercon…

He supports Tower Dumps, but only if a search warrant is signed, the data is purged after an investigation is complete and law enforcement notify subscribers included in the database.

“Inform us,” Pounds said. “Or at least those couple of hundred or couple of thousand people, innocent people, inform them that hey we acquired your information for this particular crime. We’re going to purge the data and get rid of it.”

This obviously isn’t being implementedanywhere at the moment, or we would have heard of it. Law enforcement agencies are understandably in no hurry to tell innocent citizens that they’re sweeping up their data in order to sift through it for potential signs of wrongdoing. They seem to be taking their cues from our nation’s intelligence agencies, which only begrudgingly inform the public about their data hauls, and then only after former employees splash them all over the front pages of newspapers. …


I didn’t realize that data is stored in cell towers.

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