Police searches of mobile phone data have skyrocketed during President Barack Obama's time in office, roughly doubling in just the last five years, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) reported Monday.

Between just three of the nation's largest carriers -- AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile -- over 870,000 police requests for mobile phone data were documented in 2012 alone, according to letters the companies sent to Senator Edward Markey recently.

Requests for information, including the location of individual mobile phones, voice mails and text messages, have surged thanks in part to an outdated law governing how law enforcement may go about accessing that data. The Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) -- passed in 1986, well before email, text messages and GPS were common -- is frequently cited by advocacy groups like the ACLU because it allows law enforcement to obtain communications older than 180 days without requesting a warrant.

"Our mobile devices quite literally store our most intimate thoughts as well as the details of our personal lives," ACLU legislative counsel Chris Calabrese said in an advisory. "The idea that police can obtain such a rich treasure trove of data about any one of us without appropriate judicial oversight should send shivers down our spines."

The ACLU, along with the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC), the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT) have been pushing lawmakers in recent months to update and reform the ECPA.

"The time has come for ECPA to be reformed to provide strong privacy protections while ensuring that law enforcement agencies can obtain the information they need to fight crime," a statement from CDT explains. "The best way to do that is to ensure that government agents must get a warrant from a judge before tracking our movements or reading our private communications."

The ACLU and the CDT in particular recently joined forces with Heritage Action for America and Americans for Tax Reform to create a group called Digital 4th, specifically designed to push for greater recognition of the Fourth Amendment in the electronic age. The Fourth Amendment was created to prohibit unreasonable searches and seizures by authorities.

"Our goal is to simplify, clarify, and unify ECPA's standards, providing stronger privacy protections for communications in response to changes in technology," the group says on its website. "Digital 4th at the same time supports preserving the legal tools necessary for government agencies to enforce laws, respond to emergency circumstances and protect the public."

"There is an easy fix to part of this problem," ACLU's Calabrese added. "President Obama and members of Congress should pass legislation that updates our outdated privacy laws by requiring law enforcement to get a probable cause warrant before service providers disclose the contents of our electronic communications to the government. Anything less is unnecessarily invasive and un-American."

Photo: Flickr user Ron Bennetts, creative commons licensed.


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The new head of the Environmental Protection has a history of suing the agency for trying to do its job.

The reach of this story extends from the lowliest working stiff to the highest court in the land.

By Wendell Berry

Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more 
of everything ready made. Be afraid 
to know your neighbors and to die.
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery 
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card 
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something 
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know. 
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord. 
Love the world. Work for nothing. 
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it. 
Denounce the government and embrace 
the flag. Hope to live in that free 
republic for which it stands. 
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man 
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers. 
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.

Say that the leaves are harvested 
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus 
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion—put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come. 
Expect the end of the world. Laugh. 
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts. 
So long as women do not go cheap 
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy 
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep 
of a woman near to giving birth? 
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head 
in her lap. Swear allegiance 
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos 
can predict the motions of your mind, 
lose it. Leave it as a sign 
to mark the false trail, the way 
you didn’t go. Be like the fox 
who makes more tracks than necessary, 
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.

Wendell Berry is a poet, farmer, and environmentalist in Kentucky. This poem, first published in 1973, is reprinted by permission of the author and appears in his “New Collected Poems” (Counterpoint).

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