A little window into the world of something known as a “tower dump” opened in an Ontario court last month. Judge John Sproat of the Ontario Supreme Court explains the concept very clearly, so I’ll let him do it, from a judgment midway through the case.
“Mobile telephones check into wireless networks by connecting to antennas that are frequently mounted on towers. A record is created whenever the telephone attempts or completes a communication which could be a phone call, text message or email. The record identifies the particular tower at which the phone connected to the system. Each tower serves a geographical area ranging from a 10-25 kilometre radius in the country and 1-2 km radius (or even less) in the city.
“The production orders against Rogers and Telus are in similar form. The orders require cellphone records for all phones activated, transmitting and receiving data through 21 specified Telus towers and 16 Rogers towers. The orders require the name and address of every subscriber making or attempting a communication and the particular cell tower being utilized. The orders are framed such that if both the person initiating and receiving the communication are Rogers (or Telus) subscribers, then information regarding the recipient must also be provided and the cell tower the recipient used must also be provided. The orders also require billing information which may include bank and credit card information.”
Judge Sproat pointed out just how broadly the police were collecting information — some 200,000 records from 43,000 customers. And that’s not all: “The existing orders do not specify how the customer information is to be safeguarded and does not restrict the purposes for which the Peel Regional Police may use the information.
For example the Peel Regional Police (are) not restricted from retaining the information and using it with respect to unrelated investigations.”
Evidence in case shows that cellphone companies are dealing with thousands of similar production orders, although not all of them are as broad as this one.
This particular case came about because Rogers had problems with supplying so much information with so little privacy protection and disputed the huge tower dump after the order to supply the information was granted — the police agencies involved quickly tried to shut down the court case over the disputed production orders.
Judge Sproat didn’t agree that it should be shut down, in part because individuals don’t even know that their information is being collected.
“Despite the prevalence of ‘tower dumps’ and other production orders related to cellphone records, no cases were brought to my attention which address the related privacy concerns.
Individual subscribers obviously lack the means or incentive to raise these issues,” he wrote. “The fact the ‘tower dumps’ are frequently used by police as an investigative tool is reflected in the material before me and is evident as a matter of judicial experience. The Rogers-Telus applications directly concern 40,000-50,000 individuals; it is safe to infer that the number of individuals affected across Canada would be in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, every year.”
The thing to keep in mind? Police obtain tower dumps through ex parte applications — that means they’re the only ones in court when the decision to grant the access is given. It’s a shadowy world of information collection that depends on us believing the police only act in our best interest.
It’s about time we knew what sorts of information police agencies are gathering, and why.
Russell Wangersky is The Telegram’s news editor. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.