A story out today about a major cell phone provider is pretty disturbing. The story indicates that Verizon gave tens of thousands of private and personal records to various governmental agencies without a court order.
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Verizon Communications says it has provided federal, state and local law enforcement agencies tens of thousands of communication and business records relating to customers based on emergency requests without a court order or administrative subpoena.
In an October 12 letter to members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, a senior Verizon official says that from 2005 through this September there were 63,700 such requests, and of those, 720 came from federal authorities.
Verizon defends this decision by citing the case of a pedophile who was caught as a result.
That seems a thin defense. I'm not arguing that these records don't contain information that could be useful in stopping criminals, but by circumventing the established rule of law (as expressed in a court order or warrant) they are violating the right to privacy that a phone customer should expect. We all know that we could legally be subject to surveillance if there is a court order, but to obtain one there has to be some evidence that we are engaged in illegal or dangerous activity. That fact serves as a balance against unchecked state authority.
I've heard people say that they don't care because they are doing nothing wrong. But in so doing they completely miss the point. It's not a matter of whether there is a reason to conduct surveillance or not, but a matter of whether the civil authorities follow a procedure, one which is broad enough to allow them to catch the guilty but has safeguards to protect the innocent aganst the broad intrusion of federal and state (not to use too fine a word) spying. If they do not have to follow procedure, that's where we all could potentially stand in jeopardy.
I'm not surprised frankly that if a cellular company engaged in this kind of practice, it would be Verizon.