“Big Brother.” The term was introduced into the American pop culture lexicon by George Orwell in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four and has since become synonymous with the abuse of government power as it relates to mass surveillance. In the novel, Big Brother is the dictator of a fictional state that has its citizenry under complete surveillance at all times. Big Brother relies on the use of telescreens to aid in its surveillance operations, but in today’s present our governments would find telescreens outdated to say the least.
Today, telescreens have been replaced by their real world counterpart, the cell phone, and nearly every single American has one in his or her pocket or purse. Based on data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau, there are currently 327.6 million active wireless subscriptions in the United States. Cell phones now effectively outnumber our nation’s population. And those cell phones represent one of the fastest growing sources of big data on the planet- one that “the man” can easily get information from.
Most would agree that the government has a vested interest in collecting data, but for the first time ever an audit of cell phone carriers disclosed that U.S. law enforcement has made over 1.3 million requests for customer information in the past year, and that number is expected to grow in 2012. Pursuant to a subpoena, the only customer data that can be disclosed to law enforcement is limited to basic subscriber information, which is is strictly limited to six specific categories of information (name, address, local/long distance records, length/type of service, telephone/subscriber number and method of payment). However, the data that law enforcement agencies collected from cell phone carriers went well beyond basic customer information to include text messages, location information, as well as both incoming and outgoing calls.
Many in Congress are currently expressing concern over the amount and types of information that law enforcement are seeking from cell phone carriers. Representative Edward Markey (D-MA), co-chair of the Congressional Bi-Partisan Privacy Caucus, has proposed placing limits on the types of subscriber data that law enforcement may access. In a statement to the New York Times Rep. Markey stated, “We cannot allow privacy protections to be swept aside the the sweeping nature of these information requests especially for innocent consumers. Law enforcement agencies are looking for a needle, but what are they doing with the haystack?”
Representative Markey’s concern over what law enforcement agencies are doing with the data they collect is more than justified. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, approximately 1.2 trillion voice minutes were used and an additional 1.2 trillion text messages were sent in 2011. Wireless data accounted for a staggering 341.2 petabytes over the past year, which required some carriers, including Verizon Wireless, to increase their staff in order to comply with the requests for data they have received. Verizon Wireless has had to dedicated nearly 70 employees working 24-hours a day, seven days a week and
Cell phones may be in the hands of nearly every American, but few of us stop to think about the data our devices generate on a minute-to-minute basis. We make call our friends and families, make and receive text messages, play Words with Friends, and check our email. As our mobile devices become less of a convenience and more of a necessity, we will continue to generate more data and that data is valuable to both corporations and governments. It is important to know the user agreement and policies of your cell phone carrier and to be familiar with the laws and regulations imposed by government. Thankfully all of that information can be found on the Internet, and most likely you can find the Internet on your cell phone.