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Privacy researchers: Cell phone surveillance costs as little as 4 pennies an hour

Privacy researchers broke down the cost of location surveillance techniques and warned that we need the Fourth Amendment to protect us 'when highly revealing surveillance of a citizen’s activities is possible for pennies a day.'

Would you be upset to learn that it costs mere pennies per hour for law enforcement to violate your expectation of privacy with cell phone surveillance? If the cops wanted to spy on you for 28 days, Sprint, for example, only charges $.04 cents an hour. 28 days is important because of U.S. v. Jones; "five Supreme Court Justices wrote that government surveillance of one's public movements for twenty-eight days using a GPS device violated a reasonable expectation of privacy and constituted a Fourth Amendment search."

Privacy researchers Ashkan Soltani and Kevin Bankston "set out to make a targeted contribution to an ongoing conversation about how the Fourth Amendment's protections can and should be applied to balance out the rapid technology-based expansion of the government's power to collect information about its citizens."

Since in U.S. v. Jones, the Justices seemed to take a "cost-focused structural privacy rights approach-to resolve the Fourth Amendment question," the duo came up with a "cost-based conception of the expectation of privacy that both supports and is supported by the concurring opinions in Jones." They broke down the cost of location surveillance techniques, such as tracking by a cell phone, GPS device, radio beeper and even physical pursuit by foot and in vehicles, and published their findings in the Yale Law Journal.

In light of wireless carriers admitting they received 1.1 million requests for cell phone data information from law enforcement agencies in 2012 - and that doesn't count Sprint since the company failed to give a number - and more than 9,000 requests for cell tower dumps, our cell phones are the "go to" surveillance method of choice. It's almost as if carrying a mobile phone is synonymous with giving up a reasonable expectation of privacy. In fact, Bankston and Soltani said, "The incredibly inexpensive technique of cell phone tracking clearly requires an equilibrium-adjusting application of Fourth Amendment protections for any length of surveillance."

This conclusion is clear when comparing traditional covert car pursuit or beeper surveillance to even the most expensive hourly rate for cell phone tracking using the most expensive cell phone carrier. It costs $5.21 per hour for one day of surveillance of an AT&T customer. One day of beeper surveillance is more than twenty times as expensive, at as much as $113 per hour, and covert car pursuit costs over fifty times that, at $275 per hour.

The difference is even more dramatic when the length of the surveillance increases. For example, the average cost of cell phone tracking across the three major providers is about $1.80 per hour for twenty-eight days of tracking. Using beeper technology for the same period of time is nearly sixty times more expensive, while covert car pursuit is over 150 times more expensive.

The longer a person is under cell phone surveillance, the cheaper it is for the cops. The researchers determined what mobile carriers would charge per day, per week and per 28 days. Sprint will happily sell your "reasonable expectation of privacy" for cheap, charging only $30 for 28 days, which breaks down to four pennies an hour. Conversely, T-Mobile charges $2,800 ($4.17 an hour) and AT&T will sell you out for $800 ($1.19 an hour). Verizon Wireless is not on the list.

Average Costs of Different Location Tracking Methods:

In conclusion, the researchers wrote:

When highly revealing surveillance of a citizen’s activities is possible for pennies a day, we need the Fourth Amendment to protect us. Otherwise, we may soon live in a world of unlimited virtual “tiny constables” monitoring our every move.

The paper is a really good and thought-provoking read; I highly suggest you make the time to read it.

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