Sprint downplays report it shared GPS data with feds

Law enforcement 'pinged' networks over 8M times in 13 months, company admits.

Sprint Nextel is downplaying a controversial blog report that it provided customer GPS location data to law enforcement authorities more than eight million times between September 2008 and October 2009.

In a statement Tuesday, the company called the figure a gross misrepresentation and said it doesn't represent the actual number of customers whose location information was provided -- nor does it represent the number of times law enforcement contacted Sprint directly seeking data. Instead, the number represents automated individual requests, or "pings," by authorities for specific location information needed for investigations over the 13-month period.

Typically, a single investigation could generate thousands of individual requests to the network by law enforcement officials trying to track or locate a person over several days or weeks. That means the eight million automated requests were probably generated by thousands of customer searches -- not millions, Sprint said.

Sprint's comments followed a blog report published earlier this week by Christopher Soghoian, a security researcher who attended a recent closed-door conference on electronic surveillance technologies and practices.

During a panel discussion at the conference, Paul Taylor, Sprint's manager of electronic surveillance, talked about the sizable number of requests for customer GPS data after Sprint rolled-out a new Web portal for automating such requests.

In an audio clip of Taylor's comments posted on Soghoian's blog and now mirrored elsewhere, the Sprint executive is heard expressing concern about the volume of requests that came in after the Web interface went live. "There is no way on earth my team could have handled eight million requests from law enforcement, just for GPS alone" without the portal, Taylor said. "So the tool has just really caught on fire with law enforcement."

Taylor also worried about the company's ability to handle the "millions and millions of requests" expected in future. He said Sprint now has 110 employees and contractors working full time to comply with requests for customer records from law enforcement officials.

Soghoian's report prompted an immediate outcry from privacy advocates, many of whom were surprise at the volume of location-based surveillance it appeared to reveal. In a blog post , Kevin Bankston, a senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), said that what Soghoian reported was "more shocking and frightening" than anyone imagined.

"Eight million would have been a shocking number, even if it had included every single legal request to every single carrier for every single type of customer information; That Sprint alone received eight million requests just from law enforcement only for GPS data is absolutely mind-boggling," Bankston wrote.

Sprint's clarification yesterday did little to mute that alarm among several privacy advocates, who said the episode highlights the need for legal standards governing the collection of location-based information.

"When it comes to law enforcement access to location information, it really is the Wild West," said Gregory Nojeim, senior counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technolgy (CDT) a Washington-based think tank. "There are no statutory standards that tell authorities how much evidence they need to have before they can track a cell phone user's location," Nojeim said.

That has put carriers in a tough spot because they are not sure what to require from law enforcement authorities seeking such information, he said.

"In our view, there has to be a court order. The issue is under what standard should the order be issued?" Nojeim said. "You could have a court order based on a very low reasonable cause standard or a court order based on probable cause which is a very high standard," Nojeim said, adding that the CDT supports the latter for location-based tracking.

John Verdi, senior counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) in Washington said the number of law enforcement requests made to Sprint -- and almost certainly to other carriers -- is a reminder of the need for good accountability procedures for electronic surveillance.

The lack of transparency governing law enforcement's use of electronic surveillance technology has frustrated attempts at oversight and has created "blank spaces" in telecommunications surveillance law, he said. In this case, the actual number of Sprint customers tracked does not matter. What's more important is greater transparency about the searches and why they're needed, Verdi said.

Join the newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.
Rocket to Success - Your 10 Tips for Smarter ERP System Selection

Tags GPSsprint nextel

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Jaikumar Vijayan

Computerworld (US)
Show Comments

Cool Tech

Breitling Superocean Heritage Chronographe 44

Learn more >

SanDisk MicroSDXC™ for Nintendo® Switch™

Learn more >

Toys for Boys

Family Friendly

Panasonic 4K UHD Blu-Ray Player and Full HD Recorder with Netflix - UBT1GL-K

Learn more >

Stocking Stuffer

Razer DeathAdder Expert Ergonomic Gaming Mouse

Learn more >

Christmas Gift Guide

Click for more ›

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Walid Mikhael

Brother QL-820NWB Professional Label Printer

It’s easy to set up, it’s compact and quiet when printing and to top if off, the print quality is excellent. This is hands down the best printer I’ve used for printing labels.

Ben Ramsden

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

Brainstorming, innovation, problem solving, and negotiation have all become much more productive and valuable if people can easily collaborate in real time with minimal friction.

Sarah Ieroianni

Brother QL-820NWB Professional Label Printer

The print quality also does not disappoint, it’s clear, bold, doesn’t smudge and the text is perfectly sized.

Ratchada Dunn

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

The Huddle Board’s built in program; Sharp Touch Viewing software allows us to easily manipulate and edit our documents (jpegs and PDFs) all at the same time on the dashboard.

George Khoury

Sharp PN-40TC1 Huddle Board

The biggest perks for me would be that it comes with easy to use and comprehensive programs that make the collaboration process a whole lot more intuitive and organic

David Coyle

Brother PocketJet PJ-773 A4 Portable Thermal Printer

I rate the printer as a 5 out of 5 stars as it has been able to fit seamlessly into my busy and mobile lifestyle.

Featured Content

Latest Jobs

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?