A report by the New York Times is revealing not only that the New York Police Department has been putting together a database of call logs from stolen phones, but also that the phone companies answering the police subpoenas are sometimes giving up more information than needed.
The Times reported that when a phone is stolen, police subpoena the phone company to obtain call records for that day and afterward in order to track communications of the thief. But the Times found that it’s sometimes not just the thief’s calls that are being given out — those of the victim are sometimes seen as well. Here’s how the Times explained it:
The subpoenas not only cover the records of the thief’s calls, but also encompass calls to and from the victim on the day of the theft. In some cases the records can include calls made to and from a victim’s new cellphone, if the stolen phone’s number has been transferred, three detectives said in interviews.
Whether phone companies include call records from the victim’s new phone depends on how quickly they get a new device and how many days of logs the subpoena asks for. The Times reported that police documents it reviewed showed call record requests can be for as long as two weeks, but one of the detectives they spoke with said the average is four days.
With police documents revealing thousands of subpoenas being made each year for call records from stolen phones — the department would not reveal an exact number housed in the database to the Times — lawyers the newspaper contacted expressed concern over the practice:
“If large amounts of victim phone records are being collected and added to a searchable database, it’s very troubling,” said Michael Sussmann, a lawyer who represents wireless carriers, in a phone interview.
“We’re all used to the concept of growing databases of criminal information,” Mr. Sussmann, of the firm Perkins Coie, said, “but now you’re crossing over that line and drawing in victim information.”
The Times reported it contacted the police department several times to obtain official comments but didn’t receive a response. It did note officials also declining to say if phone records obtained were used to help in investigations other than those regarding the phone theft.
The several decades old Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which allows communication records such as these to be obtained with a subpoena and not a court-issued warrant, will see a vote for revisions by the Senate Thursday. Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has said he is “committed” to increasing privacy protection of citizens’ communications in the revisions. Law enforcement and some Republicans are wary of how requiring a warrant could impact investigations.
The Times has even more details about the NYPD’s collection of phone logs and a legal perspective in the New York Time’s full article here.
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