NY Police Harvest Innocent Cell Users' Data to Track Flag Vandals

The New York Police Department is scanning through thousands of innocent cell users’ data in order to find evidence related to the mysterious appearance of two white flags on top of the Brooklyn Bridge last week.

Law enforcement sources speaking with the New York Daily News confirmed the use of the controversial technique, known as a “tower dump,” which allows officers to obtain all call, text and data transmissions through cell towers during any specific time period.

NYPD targets two cell towers

“Investigators could find names through cell phones if those involved made calls while near the Brooklyn Bridge in the wee hours Tuesday,” the article briefly mentions. “Cops are analyzing data from the two nearest cell phone towers…”

Although some law enforcement groups claim they request a warrant beforehand, a New York magistrate judge ruled last month that government agencies are not required to do so, even though the technique seizes vast amounts of personal information.

Even with a warrant, countless Constitutional lawyers have called the practice outright illegal.

“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 noted last year. “I don’t think that’s permitted by the Constitution.”

The federal government’s refusal to reveal what is done with all the collected cellular data prompted a Freedom of Information Act request by the ACLU earlier this year.

“This entire phenomenon is shrouded in secrecy,” said Christopher Soghoian of the ACLU. “The vast majority of people whose information is being collected are innocent of any crime. They’re never told their information was requested and they’re never told their information ended up in a government database.”

A 2013 investigation in South Carolina uncovered that law enforcement agencies throughout the state are permitted to hold onto all information for up to seven years.

Democratic Senator Edward Markey received a staggering glimpse of just how often the technique is used in 2012 after requesting the data from AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon.

In 2012 alone, more than 9,000 cell tower dumps were carried out for an assortment of crimes. For their compliance, the cellular companies received more than $26 million in tax payer money from law enforcement groups.

While supporters of the dragnet surveillance tactic will undoubtedly argue that the event on the Brooklyn Bridge is a matter of “national security,” other investigations have found that tower dumps are most often used for petty crimes such as breaking and entering a motor vehicle and larceny.