The Anatomy of Lawful Access Phone Records

ACL 2006 - Phonebook  Canadian advocates, government officials, and scholars are all concerned about the forthcoming lawful access legislation. A key shared concern is that authorities could, under the legislation, access telecommunications subscription records without court oversight. Moreover, as a condition of accessing these records businesses might be served with gag orders. Such orders would prevent Canadians from ever knowing (outside of court!) that the government had collected large swathes of information about them. In response to concerns aired in public, the Public Safety Minister has insisted that the legislation would merely let police access “phone book” information from telecommunications providers.

I maintain that such assertions obfuscate the sheer amount of information contained in the records that authorities would collect. The aim of this post is to make clear just how much information is contained in a single lawful access “phone record”, demonstrating that the government is seeking information that grossly exceeds what is contained in the white or yellow pages today. As a result, I first provide an example phone record that resembles those in every phonebook in Canada and then offer an example of a lawful access record. Remember that such requests may be filed to multiple service providers (e.g. Internet service provider, web forum hosts, blogs, mobile phone companies, etc) and thus a swathe of records can be combined to generate a comprehensive picture of any particular individual. By the conclusion of the post it should be evident that information provided under lawful access powers is more expansive than the phone records government ministers allude to and lay bare those ministers’ technical obfuscations.

Phonebook Records, Today

In his response to the Information and Privacy Commissioner of Ontario, Vic Toews (Public Safety Minister) insisted that police would simply have access to “phone book” information under the forthcoming lawful access legislation. He asserted that, “Our proposed approach of linking an internet address to subscriber information is on par with the phone book linking phone numbers to an address.” While government officials insist Toews’ response obfuscates just how expansive lawful access records are from traditional phone records, it is arguably challenging for the lay public to grasp the amount of information contained in the proposed subscriber record fields. So, let’s consider the differences between a phone book record accessible in your home, today, using a phone book and “phone book” data the federal government wants to make available to authorities without a warrant. The following resembles a phone record reminiscent of one in a phone book today:

John Smith, 456 Westminister Ave . . . . . . (636)-421-6124

This record contains the listed name of an individual, the address associated with the phone number,  and the area and local code for the telephone service. Not all individuals provide full details in the phone books that are distributed each year. Some individuals have their addresses removed or substitute their full names with their initials. Such modifications are often the result of people feeling uncomfortable with fully disclosing their address, phone number, and name in one publicly accessible location. Using this information you can (potentially) learn where the individual associated with a phone number lives, but you do not necessarily discover the names of particular individuals living in the home, number of people in the home, and so forth. Thus, where multiple people share a single phone and address the subscriber record may be somewhat nebulous; while it should identify an individual at the address it is questionable whether that particular individual interests the authorities.

Phonebook Records, Tomorrow

The ‘phone records’ that Minister Toews is talking about are quite a bit larger, and far more descriptive, than those found in the local yellow or white pages. As I’ve depicted them, one line grows to six, and three data items explode to eleven descriptively rich fields. The expanded list will be available as phone records to authorities but not to individuals. This stands as a clear distinction between a phone record that individuals think of in phonebooks and the record that authorities will have access under lawful access legislation. An updated record might appear as follows:

John Smith, 456 Westminister Ave . . . . . . (636)-421-6124 . . . . . . . . . . . . I.P.,
MIN, 250-5211-0091 . . .  . . . . . . SPID, 636-421-6124-00
ENS . . . . . . . . 1000 0010 0001 1010 0000 0101 0110 1111
IMEI, 35-209900-176148-23 . . . . . IMSI, 310-150-564857956
SIM . . . . . .. . . . . . . . . . . 894411 0112 12333344 4

Most of what is contained in these eleven fields will be foreign to the average user. In light of this, let’s turn to unpack the new record in a line-by-line format.

The first line is identical to your typical phone book record. Note that the phone number here would be a permanent number, such as the number to call if the mobile number identified in line three is inoperable. Obviously there may be instances where there isn’t a distinction between the phone numbers in those lines if the mobile subscriber either lacks a landline or alternate mobile phone. Further, where the telecommunications service provider, such as a web forum, only has a single phone number then a mobile number might be situated on this line.

Line two offers the email address and Internet Protocol address of the subscriber in question. Email addresses will be tied to particular accounts; you may have one email address for a web forum, another for purchases online, and yet another for personal correspondence from your Internet service provider. While a singular email address is given here, this is representative of a single subscriber record from a single telecommunications service provider. It is likely that different emails (and, thus, different ‘phone records’) are kept by each of the service providers you engage with on a daily basis. The Internet Protocol address is assigned to you by your Internet service provider and is an essential element to accessing the Internet itself. IP addresses identify where data originates from and should be sent towards. Your IP address is likely either dynamic (changes with some degree of frequency) or static (permanently assigned to your modem). Regardless, using an IP address authorities could identify your Internet service provider and, from there, demand that the Internet provider disclose which subscriber was assigned the IP address at some particular time. Given that many IP addresses are dynamic it is possible that different telecommunications service providers will have different addresses attached to your record instead of the singular address offered in the example line two.

The third line contains the Mobile Identification Number (MIN) and Service Provider Identifier (SPIN). This line is needed for subscriber records associated with mobile phone/device usage. The MIN uniquely identifies a mobile device on a mobile provider’s wireless network and can be used to dial to and from the device. While the record that I provide is accessible to the human eye, MINs are typically kept in a database in two components. The area code is often stored in a 10 bit MIN2 section and the local portion in a 24 bit MIN1 section. (See UK ESN/MIN Grabbing for more information on how these two sections are divided.) Unlike other serials and codes, which are engrained into the hardware of a device, a MIN is stored in a mobile providers’ database and can be changed. A SPIN is a unique number assigned to service providers so that telecommunications switch owners and service providers can enter financial relationships for the purposes of carrying traffic. The number identifies the company that ‘owns’ the account associated with the traffic. Thus, even when calling using a Rogers mobile phone on the AT&T network, the SPIN will help to ascertain that Rogers (and, ultimately, the account owner) is responsible for paying for using the AT&T network.

The fourth line holds the Electronic Serial Number (ESN), a number that is encoded into each mobile device as a 32-binary bit number. It is embedded into the device by the manufacturer and thus is not assigned by a mobile telephony/Internet company from whom a device is purchased. The ESN is often checked against the MIN to prevent fraud. Specifically, while an individual could try and have their MIN changed to try and receive free services, by correlating the MIN and ESN in the providers’ database the likelihood of successfully conducting fraudulent activities are diminished. Moreover, with the ESN it is possible to ascertain whether the same phone is being used across a set of wireless carriers’ networks.

The fifth line contains the International Mobile Equipment Identification (IMEI) and International Mobile Subscriber Identification (IMSI) numbers. These numbers are tied to mobile devices (e.g. phones, 3G-capable tablets). The following information can be derived from the IMEI number used in the example above, “35-209900-176148-23”: that the number was issued by the British Approvals Board for Telecommunications (“35”) and given allocation code “2099”. The “00” reveals the period of time when the device was manufactured, “176148” reveals the serial number issued to the model of device, and the “23” reveals the version of software installed on the phone. The IMSI identifies the mobile country code (“310), mobile network code (“150”), and mobile subscription identification number (“564857956”). “310” is the number associated with America, and “150” with AT&T. As a result, with the IMEI and IMSI numbers you can ascertain when the device was made, serial of the device, version of its software, nation of usage-origin, carrier-of-origin, and the subscriber code of the carrier associated with the device.

Line six has the Subscriber Identification Module (SIM) number. This number, “894411 0112 12333344 4” in our example, is broken into subcomponents to identify different bits of information. The first two digits (“89”) are associated with the telecom operators identifier. “44” refers to the country code and “11” to the network code the module is associated with. The next four digits (“0112”) indicate the month and year of the SIM’s manufacture and following two numbers (“12”) of the switch’s configuration code. The next six numbers disclose the SIM number itself and the last holds the digit to confirm the validity of the SIM serial itself.

Perhaps it needn’t be stated, but as should be clear there is a significant difference between a “phone record” in a phonebook and a “phone record” under the Canadian government’s proposed lawful access legislation. A phone number and address does not reveal the manufacturer of a mobile device, when it was made, when elements of the phone were provisioned, the provider of the telephone services, and so forth. Instead, the lawful access record affords a trove of data that is far in excess of what a citizen would find when they looked up a name, address, or phone number in the hardcopy phonebook that is delivered to their door each year.

Aggregating Records for Citizen Transparency

Not all telecommunications service providers could make available a full post-lawful access legislation “phone record.” However, once authorities have a single piece of information they can then move to other service providers to develop a full record, one that could subsequently be used to map a person’s presence on the Internet, their habits, and their activities. Using open source intelligence, the email address can be employed to determine what other services are attached to that email address, and using the IP address authorities can determine where a person is accessing the Internet from (i.e. was the IP address leased to a cafe? to a home? to a business? to a mobile network?) and the billing records associated with that IP address. If browsing from Starbucks, the cafe might be able to turn over a log of users who used their wireless network during the time authorities are interested. If browsing from home, or your own mobile device, then the subscriber records associated with that billing address might be available. And, if browsing from a friend’s phone or computer, then their information might be given to police regardless of your friend’s interest to the police.

Remembering back to the discussion of traditional phone records, it is possible that multiple people share the same account and thus what turns up in the phonebook remains somewhat ambiguous. This may remain so when dealing with communal Internet connections but is far less true when dealing with mobile devices. Phones have, for many people, become fetishes that are carried on one’s person and jealously protected from third-party intrusion. Thus, the ability to ascertain who owns, and is using, a particular mobile device is far less ambiguous than who subscribes to, and uses, a landline phone. Using contemporary policing technologies such as IMSI catchers, authorities can de-anonymize a crowd by catching the IMSI associated with each phone and immediately requesting subscriber data from mobile phone providers. While it may not be legal for authorities to engage in ruses to compel individuals to identify themselves when those individuals have done nothing wrong, with IMSI catchers no ruse is needed for the identification process to occur. The term “papers please” is a distinctly analogue notion, one that can be abandoned by authorities in possession of IMSI catchers and lawful access powers.

Surveillance is being automated, and vendors are accelerating the rates that records can be collected and analysed to meet the needs and expectations of the multibillion dollar surveillance complex that has significantly grown post-9/11. Developers are not about to slow the rate of their surveillance innovations in the face of regulation that permits more expansive surveillance, records collection, and correlation of online actions with those records. Technology, however, does not determine the course of society: technology and society are mutually entwined, with each influencing the other. While surveillance architectures are being developed, if their uses are either illegal or are accompanied by high administrative or financial burdens then the architecture can lay substantively dormant save for in truly exceptional times associated with incredibly significant events. Legal friction can encourage such high costs by outlawing particular ways of collecting subscriber information and requiring administrative burdens (e.g. the warranting process) to force authorities to intentionally assign resources to access subscriber records. Reducing legal and administrative frictions in an era where technical frictions are quickly becoming a thing of the past is a recipe for expanded government surveillance. Such surveillance can detrimentally affect individuals by chilling speech and association, harm businesses by increasing the costs of complying with regulation, and force citizens to pay for their own surveillance in increased service costs and by way of their charter rights. We must avoid such harms and, as such, retain administrative and legal frictions to ensure that strong oversight bodies exist and that appropriate frictions accompany novel policing and intelligence powers.

5 thoughts on “The Anatomy of Lawful Access Phone Records

  1. And not to mention that IMEI gives access to cell site records, which further help to track your movements. Requests for those records already occur.


  2. You guys are paranoid, the Police have to write a warrant to go any further than simply getting your IP address. Unless you are involved in criminal activity you have nothing to worry about. How about you write an article on what Facebook does with all of the same data you describe above which is far worse than what the police would do unless you are using the Internet to commit a crime…grow-up and quit whining.


    • Many of today’s policing/intelligence operations rely on ‘transmission data’ well prior to the warranting processes. Quite often, what is accessible in a ‘content grab’ is of substantially less investigative value than where you’re been, whom you’ve been talking to, etc. This has been the case in various rights challenges in Canada, where it’s come out that authorities were routinely monitoring individuals who were only guilty of advocating for government to respect aboriginal treaty rights, charter rights, and so forth. Authorities should be required to get a warrant before they can get this data; with a suitable warranting process these elements of the legislation might be preservable.

      Facebook also collects data, and the focus on lawful access here shouldn’t detract from issues and complaints I have over Facebook data collection and dissemination. I would also note that I have, in the past, written about Facebook practices in this space.


Comments are closed.