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Editorial: Our cellphones become easy prey for pervasive snooping

Turn on your cellphone and local police might track where you go. Take your phone on vacation abroad and so can the National Security Agency.

Police are using “tower dumps” – information on all calls bounced off a certain cell tower – to find criminals. By gathering nearly 5 billion records daily on mobile phones around the world, the NSA is trying to uncover terrorist plots. But in their zeal, authorities are also sweeping up data on millions of Americans who are completely innocent.

These latest revelations should make us think again about how much privacy we’re willing to give up in the name of security. And these disclosures should spur the White House and Congress to action, finally.

Sen. Edward Markey led the investigation that found that federal, state and local law enforcement agencies made more than 9,000 requests last year to harvest cell tower data. The Massachusetts Democrat has legislation that would require a warrant to obtain GPS location data, limit how long phone companies can keep the data and require law enforcement to disclose data requests.

There are a bushel of bills to rein in the NSA, which, it should be abundantly clear by now, is out of control. Secret documents declassified last month showed that the agency repeatedly violated court orders and its own rules. There is no longer any doubt that the “trust us” assurances by top intelligence officials are a sham.

To its shame, Congress has yet to act on any major legislation. Maybe it will feel some pressure from eight tech giants, which also happen to be big sources of political cash and support. In an open letter to President Barack Obama and Congress this week, Apple, Facebook, Google and the others warned that constitutional rights are being undermined and called on lawmakers to ensure that government surveillance is “clearly restricted by law, proportionate to the risks, transparent and subject to independent oversight.”

Sure, these firms tread on privacy themselves and are acting in their self-interest; they don’t want their customers to think they’re in cahoots with Big Brother. But on the issue, they happen to be right.

Just because authorities have the technology to do something doesn’t mean they should. Law enforcement and the NSA have lost their bearings on that. It’s up to Congress and the president to get them back on course.