Time reports on a controversy concerning the USA PATRIOT Act and mobile phone data:
The U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee is weighing fresh concerns about the sweeping nature of domestic spying using one controversial section of the Patriot Act. This particular part of that law is notable because it has been divisive for years — and because during those years President Obama has quietly moved from being a Senator skeptical of the provisions to being an enthusiastic spy chief whose Administration embraces them.
Last Tuesday the committee met to consider the worries of some members, mostly Democrats, who say the Justice Department has drafted a breathtakingly broad interpretation of Section 215 of the Patriot Act.
That section allows the FBI to seize without a warrant “any tangible things,” like documents, so long as they are part of an effort to protect the country against international terrorism. The FBI can order a private company to turn over data as long as the bureau can convince a special national-security court, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, that the information is “relevant” to antiterrorism work.
Obama Administration officials emphasize that this review by the intelligence court is an important step in protecting privacy. Privacy advocates, however, consider it little more than a rubber stamp. […]
The Intelligence Committee met in secret, and members are not permitted to say anything publicly about the deliberations. Senator Ron Wyden did tell TIME that the Justice Department opinion made the broad authority in Section 215 really broad. “When you read that opinion, the classified opinion — that I can’t say a word about — and you set it down next to the text of the law, there is a big gap,” he explained. “That is what this issue is all about.” (The American Civil Liberties Union announced in May that it was seeking the opinion through the Freedom of Information Act and would sue to get it.) […]
Acting Assistant Attorney General Todd Hinnen noted before a House subcommittee March 9: “Some have argued that Section 215 runs afoul of the Fourth Amendment [which governs police searches] because it allows the government to obtain records upon a showing of ‘relevance’ to an authorized investigation rather than probable cause.” But, he added, “for constitutional purposes, a business-records order is not a ‘search’ within the meaning of the Fourth Amendment.”
It’s hard to say just what kind of “classified-collection program” the Obama Administration is conducting. There seems to be a consensus among privacy advocates that the government is using the very latest technological advancements to sweep up, among other things, the locations of cell phones.
Your cell phone continuously pings your service providers’ towers and base stations in order to maintain a signal for you to use. By recording the precise time and angle of a cell’s data arriving at multiple base stations, providers can calculate the location of your phone about as accurately as a GPS unit — which means down to a single room in a building, at least in cities crowded with cell towers.