Sheriffs in Richland County, South Carolina are currently defending the use of a controversial investigation method that grants them access to thousands of cell phone user’s data.
The technique, known as a “Tower Dump,” allows law enforcement to request all call, text and data transmissions from any specific time period from a cell tower’s provider. Search warrants obtained by WLTX News uncovered Richland County Sheriffs use of the technique during several cases including a 2011 vehicle break-in outside a sheriff’s home.
Although police must obtain and present a search warrant to cell providers in order to access the data, the amount of information gathered, especially on those not suspected of a crime, presents a clear constitutional violation.
“To turn over everybody’s telephone data to the police unrelated to any suspicion of crime, I think that’s an unreasonable search and seizure,” First Amendment attorney Jay Bender told WLTX. “I don’t think that’s permitted by the Constitution.”
Under South Carolina evidence retention laws, if a suspect is convicted of a crime in which a Tower Dump was used, police can hold onto all information gathered for up to seven years, including the data of all innocent cell users.
According to the Richland County Sheriff’s Department, innocent cell users have nothing to fear but apparently wave their rights once their data connects to a cell tower.
“Somebody’s innocent phone tower data, we don’t need that, we don’t want it, we don’t care for it,” Sheriff Leon Lott said. “We’re not infringing on their rights. When they use that telephone they understand that that information is going to go to a tower.”
South Carolina resident and counter-terrorism consultant Keith Pounds says he supports Tower Dumps, but argues that legal constraints regarding the technology’s use by law enforcement is shaky at best.
“Inform us or at least those couple of hundred or couple of thousand people, innocent people, inform them that hey, we acquired your information for this particular crime. We’re going to purge the data and get rid of it,” Pounds said.
Currently, information on the number of law enforcement agencies using Tower Dumps is unknown, but many suspect the use is wide-spread. Unfortunately, Tower Dumps are only one of many techniques slowly chipping away at the Fourth Amendment.
Just last month, a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing revealed a 2010 NSA pilot project that used cellphone towers to map peoples’ locations unknowingly, providing yet another example of the dangers of unchecked surveillance powers.
Other cell phone data harvesting techniques used by law enforcement were uncovered earlier this month in Seattle, where a Homeland Security funded mesh network was found to be recording mobile device users’ information, including the last 1,000 places visited. Exclusive documents obtained by Storyleak and Infowars revealed a multitude of local and federal agencies tied into the mesh network, allowing groups such as the Seattle Fusion Center to track unsuspecting residents.