April 25, 2012 | By Hanni Fakhoury

CA Legislators Allow Wireless Industry to Continue "Working Day and Night" Selling You Out in Secret

EFF, along with the ACLU of Northern California, is a sponsor of the California Location Privacy Act of 2012 ("SB 1434"), a bill that would require California law enforcement officers and agencies to seek a search warrant before obtaining electronic location information. Yesterday, the bill passed through the California Senate Committee on Public Safety and is now on its way to the full Senate for consideration. But when it gets there, it will be missing a major, important piece of its text: its reporting requirement.

Its certainly no surprise that there's opposition whenever a bill proposes making it harder for law enforcement to get information. But in the case of SB 1434, the opposition came from a surprising place: the wireless industry. And their opposition wasn't with SB 1434's search warrant requirement. In fact, imposing a search warrant would actually be beneficial to the wireless industry. As the ACLU demonstrated with its nationwide FOIA request on law enforcement access to cell phone tracking information, police throughout the country are using different legal standards and judicial process in order to obtain this sensitive information. SB 1434 would create a uniform, easy-to-apply standard for the disclosure of location information in California: a search warrant or nothing. AT&T is even part of the Digital Due Process coalition, which has lobbied Congress to impose a search warrant requirement for law enforcement access to location data.

Instead, the wireless industry's opposition was with SB 1434's reporting requirements, which would force communication providers to report the number of times location information has been disclosed or not, the number of times a provider contested a demand, and the number of users whose location information was disclosed. Providers would be required to publish this information on their websites annually. These lax reporting requirements are a far cry from the Wiretap Act's far more rigorous reporting requirements. But according to the Wireless Association ("CTIA"), a wireless trade association that includes AT&T, Verizon and Sprint, the proposed reporting requirements "unduly burden wireless providers and their employees, who are working day and night to assist law enforcement to ensure the public's safety and to save lives."

Leading up to the April 24th hearing on the bill in the Public Safety Committee, CTIA's claims were already widely reported in the presscalled out by the ACLU, and deemed "baseless" and "laughable." With one Sprint executive already commenting that its automated system for handling law enforcement requests is "extremely inexpensive to operate and easy," and the details of the handsome sums wireless companies charge the government for all those data requests being made publicly available, its easy to see why the companies would want to keep the details of their close relationship with the government secret. 

So, faced with pressure from these giant wireless companies, its unsurprising that SB 1434 passed out of committee but without its reporting requirements. And while getting SB 1434 to the full California Senate is a great first step towards bringing the protection of a search warrant to millions of Californians, its still disheartening to see the wireless industry continuing to fight against attempts at transparency. Its no surprise that both AT&T and Verizon got no stars for being transparent with its customers about government requests in our "Who Has Your Back" campaign.

It doesn't have to be this way. Whether its Google's Transparency Report, or Twitter's policy of informing users of law enforcement requests for their information, its possible for companies to comply with law enforcement requests, and yet be transparent about it. In fact, the OpenNet Initiative is trying to create a uniform format for company disclosure of data to law enforcement in order to make it easier for companies to be transparent. Apparently the wireless industry wants no part of this openess. Its opposition to SB 1434 just continues its trend of selling you out--and profiting from it--in secret.

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