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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Daily Report: Police Are Amassing Trove of Cellphone Logs

When a cellphone is reported stolen in New York, the Police Department routinely subpoenas the phone's call records, from the day of the theft onward. The logic is simple: if a thief uses the phone, a list of incoming and outgoing calls could lead to the suspect.

But in the process, the Police Department has quietly amassed a trove of telephone logs, all obtained without a court order, that could conceivably be used for any investigative purpose, reports Joseph Goldstein in The New York Times.

The subpoenas not only cover the records of the thief's calls, but also encompass calls to and from the victim on the day of the theft. In some cases the records can include calls made to and from a victim's new cellphone, if the stolen phone's number has been transferred, three detectives said in interviews.

Police officials declined to say how many phone records are contained in the database, or how often they might have led to arrests. But police documents sugge st that thousands of subpoenas have been issued each year, with each encompassing anywhere from dozens to hundreds of phone calls.

To date, phone companies have appeared willing to accede to the Police Department's requests for large swaths of call records.

The practice of accumulating the phone numbers in a searchable database is “eye-opening and alarming,” a civil rights lawyer, Norman Siegel, said when told of the protocol for subpoenaing phone records. “There is absolutely no legitimate purpose for doing this. If I'm an innocent New Yorker, why should any of my information be in a police database?”

Mr. Siegel also said the Police Department should not be permitted to hold on to phone records indefinitely if the records were not relevant to active criminal investigations.

Nationwide, cellphone carriers reported receiving about 1.5 million requests from law enforcement agencies for various types of subscriber information in 2011.