NYPD Amassing Cell Phone User Database

Published November 24, 2009

The New York Police Department is amassing a database of cell phone users, instructing police officers to log serial numbers from suspects’ phones in hopes of connecting them to past or future crimes.

In an era of disposable, anonymous cell phones, the file could be a treasure trove for detectives investigating drug rings and other criminal enterprises, police officials say.

A recent internal memo says when cops make an arrest they should remove the suspect’s cell phone battery to avoid leakage–then jot down the International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) number. The IMEI number is registered with the service provider whenever a call is made.

That data could allow a detective to match, for example, a cell phone used by one suspect to a phone used by another.

Privacy Concerns Raised

Critics say there are several problems with this policy. For one, there are limits to the data’s usefulness. For instance, all Chinese-made cell phones sold in India have the same number, and some overseas cell phones are embedded with fake numbers.

Civil libertarians are alarmed by the new policy. Normally, a warrant is needed to obtain information such as calls made or numbers in an address book. Christopher Dunn, associate legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said it appears the NYPD is “taking phones apart to get information” without warrants.

“It’s hard to believe they feel there’s a real need to take out the battery to prevent leakage. Instead, it looks like they’re doing this to circumvent the warrant process,” Dunn said. “This policy was revealed just a few days before the New York City government admitted a dangerous data breach of private information.”

Sacrificing Freedom?

“I can’t help but think how much of our freedom and our privacy is sacrificed on the altar of ‘security’ these days,” said Frank G. Scafidi, a 20-year FBI veteran who retired from his job as a Sacramento, California-based field supervisor in 2004. “All the security walls, razor wire, and endless monitoring of its citizens performed by the Kremlin in the Soviet era came to a screeching halt 20 years ago when the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet Union ceased to exist.

“How ironic, then, that all of those measures are being adopted here, in the United States, by government agents acting to keep us ‘safe’ from harm,” Scafidi added. “They alone determine what is useful, relevant, and suspicious, and none of us can escape that scrutiny. George Orwell could not write the fiction that describes today’s reality.”

Toeing the Legal Line

Scafidi acknowledged such searches have their place. “Collecting information incident to an arrest is a little more acceptable than collecting information at will,” he said. “For one thing, it could be deemed an ‘inventory’ search, one that is perfectly legal. And if it exposes evidence of other criminal acts, then that has long been held as proper.

“For example, a person is arrested for drunk driving,” Scafidi said. “While being booked at the jail, an inventory of the person’s personal items finds a baggie of meth in his pants. That’s a good search, and the evidence will be allowed to form the basis for an additional narcotics charge.”

Nonetheless, collecting data on people “in case” they commit a crime in the future “is not what this country is all about,” Scafidi noted. “But in the post-9/11 world we live in, that is becoming more the rule rather than the exception.

“Cameras are proliferating everywhere,” Scafidi added. “And while, generally speaking, there is no expectation of privacy on public streets and in public spaces, what happens to that material?”

‘Kneejerk Reaction’

Writing down phones’ IMEI numbers may be a kneejerk reaction by police now, says Andy Abramson of Del Mar, California, author of the VoIP Watch blog, but some European countries go even further.

In Spain, a person has to show a picture ID in order to buy a prepaid phone. In France, a person has to show a picture ID or proof of a bank account in order to have a prepaid phone for more than a month.

Phil Britt ( [email protected]) writes from South Holland, Illinois.