We get lots of emails and comments from people who are concerned that federal law enforcement officials are listening in on their free government cell phone conversations. We’ve even seen YouTube videos where similar fears are expressed.
Sadly, these privacy concerns seem to keep many eligible Americans from taking advantage of Lifeline’s generous offer of a free cell phone and 250 free minutes every month.
With that in mind, this recent article may be of interest:
Eff.org reports, “The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Tuesday that the government must turn over information from criminal prosecutions in which federal law enforcement agencies obtained cell-site location information without a warrant. The suit, filed as part of EFF’s FLAG Project and in conjunction with the ACLU, sought the release of the case numbers and case names in which the government had tracked the location of a person’s cell phone without obtaining a warrant.”
Civil libertarians are celebrating this as a huge victory in their on-going effort to keep the government from tracking Americans’ whereabouts without a valid warrant.
A little background: In 2007 the ACLU and EFF submitted a Freedom of Information Act request demanding that the Department of Justice reveal the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about its policies and procedures for getting cell-site information in criminal investigations. The courts forced government to disclose all cell-site information used in 255 different criminal prosecutions. Let’s repeat that in case you didn’t get it the first time: The government revealed that it had use cell phone information gathered without warrants in 255 criminal prosecutions. But, of course, the government complied as only the government can do by refusing to disclose case names and numbers.
In the end, the D.C. Circuit forced the government to disclose all records in all cases in which they got convictions. It said, “disclosure sought by the plaintiffs would inform this ongoing public policy discussion by shedding light on the scope and effectiveness of cell phone tracking as a law enforcement tool.”
But that’s just the beginning. Congress is also getting into the privacy protection business. If passed, several new bills will require law enforcement officials to get a valid warrants before tracking anyone’s location by tracking their cell phone. Civil liberties groups are urging Congress to pass these laws and to update the country’s privacy laws.
Our conclusion: Unless you’re involved in a major criminal conspiracy of a size and scope that would attract the attention of the federal government, this District Court decision will prohibit the feds from listening in on your phone calls or tracking your whereabouts.
That being said, we think it would be a tragedy if a few bad apples ruined the outstanding Lifeline program for all those who truly need it.
We urge you to do everything you can to protect the Lifeline program. If you know of anyone who’s using a free government cell phone in the commission of a crime, turn them in. Call your local police department. Don’t let them ruin this program for everyone else.