Is Sprint letting the police follow us around?

000413_13There’s a bit of a tizzy this week about Sprint allowing police officials to read up to 8 million “pings” on its network in order to track felons. Sprint made it considerably easier for police to do this by adding a special “portal,” probably a phone number-based dump of GPS data for phones over time, to the service they offer upon receiving a court order or a subpoena. I wonder, however, if this 8 million number isn’t far too high to be within the realm of sanity and/or if this number should make us concerned.

The importance of this number is that is suggests that police are doing far more surveillance on our personal data than they let on.

My initial take on this story is that we’re dealing with an absurdly inflated number. I doubt in all seriousness that any police department could process even and use a thousand geo location records let along some proportion of eight million. While I don’t doubt our boys in blue are out to help us and catch criminals, there are more pressing budgetary issues in most departments than hiring a data mining expert. That said, this insane number brings up an important question: how much does the government know about us and how much of that data is gathered “to be safe” when it doesn’t need to be gathered.

Our data is, for the most part, free for the taking. I have no expectation of privacy on my phone, email, or web browsing habits. Given enough interest and perhaps cash, anyone can track my every move. This is a given. We cannot change this. That rabbit has left the building, as they say.

What we can change is how much of this surveillance is known to us during or after the fact. The innocent have nothing to hide, obviously, but data dumps, especially for police organizations, rarely stay within the lines. Someone at Sprint, for example, probably saw the subpoena and decided to give up all the goods they had. Database administrators see data as data and it’s as easy to return 10 rows in a database as it is to return all of the rows.

As technologies designed to track us get easier to use, people will use them. My concern is not that they’re watching us but it’s how careless the watchers are in handling the data. This is the real concern.