Journalism in the Public Interest

How Many Millions of Cellphones Are Police Watching?

What We Still Don’t Know About Cellphone Surveillance

(Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

7/20/2012: This story has been updated.

In response to a congressional inquiry, mobile phone companies on Monday finally disclosed just how many times they’ve handed over users’ cellphone data to the FBI and other law enforcement agencies. By the New York Times’ count, cellphone companies responded to 1.3 million demands for subscribers’ information last year from law enforcement. Many of the records, such as location data, don’t require search warrants or much court oversight.

Both police and cell service providers had long resisted releasing details on the scope of cellphone surveillance. But the new disclosures from cellphone companies still leave a slew of unanswered questions. Here’s what we have yet to learn.

So more than a million people had their cellphone records picked up law enforcement surveillance?

Actually, it’s probably far more than that, but we can’t know for sure.

While the Times calculated the number of overall requests from law enforcement, each of those requests could cover more than one person.

For instance, when seeking location information, law enforcement agencies frequently ask for “tower dumps,” which list every phone in range of a cell tower at a particular time. In cities, where cell towers are located close together, it is possible that the locations of thousands of people might be swept up in a single request.

Even outside of urban areas, ubiquitous small boxes known as microcells, which help you get cell reception in crowded places like shopping malls, also record highly precise location data. Sprint noted in its letter to Congress that each subpoena it received “typically” asked for information on multiple subscribers.

The Times’ calculation also doesn’t include specifics from T-Mobile, one of the four largest carriers, because it did not initially provide them, saying “T-Mobile does not disclose the number of requests we receive from law enforcement annually.” Since then, T-Mobile has said it responded to 191,000 requests in 2011.

When do police have the right to snoop on your location data?

The law isn’t settled yet, but location information is generally far easier for police to get than a warrant for a wiretap.

A warrant is generally required for police to place a wiretap or track phones in real time, meaning police must have proof they have probable cause that the search will reveal evidence of a crime. But for police to get location data, many courts hold that police need only show that the data would contain “specific and articulable facts” related to a case.

Privacy activists have long held that requests for location data require a search warrant to be constitutional. They say police are essentially using cellphones as tracking devices. But the Supreme Court hasn’t ruled on the issue, and Congress has yet to pass a law addressing it.

Police obtain court orders for basic subscriber information so frequently that some mobile phone companies have established websites— here’s one— with forms that police can fill out in minutes.

The Obama Administration’s Department of Justice has said mobile phone users have “no reasonable expectation of privacy.”

For their part, cellphone companies have supported congressional efforts to make it tougher for police to get location records. An industry representative spoke at House hearing in favor of a bill that would require law enforcement agencies to obtain a warrant before demanding mobile phone users’ location information.

Exactly who are police tracking?

It’s unclear how connected to a criminal investigation you have to be for law enforcement agencies to request your cellphone information. Stephen Smith, a magistrate judge in southern Texas who has advocated for clearer standards for location data requests, said law enforcement authorities sometimes even request information for every mobile phone a suspect has called.

“If you call and order a pizza, they might request the delivery guy’s records,” Smith said. These court orders are usually kept secret— during an ongoing investigation, police don’t want to tip off a suspect— but as a result, the vast majority of cellphone subscribers being tracked have no idea police or the FBI have their historical location information, whether they were suspected of a crime or not.

What sorts of investigations do the requests serve?

It’s not clear.

Police departments have frequently argued that requiring a warrant to obtain cellphone location information would cripple investigations into violent crimes like kidnapping. But it’s unknown what proportion of law enforcement requests actually relate to these types of serious crimes.

“If 80 percent are for drug cases or robberies and two percent are for child sexual predators, it would help if you could put a number on those things,” Smith said. “We’d be in a better position to legislate.”

So what data did police request the most?

That’s also unclear.

Most of the companies didn’t release an exact breakdown of police requests. So we don’t know how many of the requests were for location data and how many were for call records, billing information or other data.

Some of the overall numbers leave questions too. Sprint has about half the subscriber base of Verizon and AT&T. But it reported that it received about 500,000 requests overall from law enforcement last year. That far outpaces its competitors.

We spoke to Sprint spokeswoman Stephanie Vinge Walsh who said that Sprint counted each person whose data is sucked up via a police request. It’s not clear exactly how the other companies totaled the requests they handled.

Which agencies have been requesting the data?

Once again, we don’t know.

The cellphone companies didn’t say what proportion of requests was made by federal authorities and what proportion came from state and local police departments.

The American Civil Liberties Union earlier this year culled data from dozens of police departments, showing wide discrepancies in the ease with which police could obtain cellphone location data. Some police departments routinely obtained warrants; others requested swathes of records with far less court oversight. In response to a question from Congress about whether police had misused phone tracking, T-Mobile said it had identified two cases, which it referred to the FBI.

What does law enforcement do with the data after it’s collected?

It depends on who is requesting it.

As Smith, the Texas magistrate judge, pointed out in a recent paper, any information that’s not used as evidence in court is unlikely to become public. Cellphone companies’ data retention policies vary widely, and the duration of time law enforcement hangs on to the data it obtains is unknown.


An earlier version of this story said that T-Mobile, in answer to a congressional query, had refused to provide a count of cellphone data requests it received from law enforcement. It has been updated to say that T-Mobile did not initially provide a count. T-Mobile did not include the figure in its May 23 letter answering Rep. Ed Markey’s request for the data. However, the company says it later told Markey’s staff privately that it had received 191,000 law enforcement data requests in 2011. Markey’s office agreed to keep the figure confidential.

The NY Times reported on the geometric increase in the monitoring of Sprint users. Could this be because they’re the national carrier for CREDO, the social action network?

George Orwells’ “1984” is mild compared to what is going on
“Here and Now”. We are constantly being tracked and traced.
Wake up and realize that you are living in a police state. We are reaching the tipping point.  Thankfully there is the internet where valuable information can be found unlike the “news” from the bought & paid for mass media.

David McFatridge

July 11, 2012, 3:16 p.m.

I have one word - Gibberbot, google it.

Does it really matter to find out the exact number of police that have or are monitoring cell phones? The fact is the FBI and the NSA have been on everyone cell phones. So what does it matter at this point the number of cops that are on cell phones?
Boys and girls the phones have been listened in on by our government long before there were cell phones, and certainly long before there was a Patriot Act! That is yet another reason why so many in law enforcement are under the karmic law.
Under the karmic law they have no right to do this activity unless a person gives them their personal permission. Because the karmic law supercedes the man made law…well so many of them are beginning to find the karmic law unbearable!

I like the Gibberbot approach.

My location data belongs to me and the people who see me when I’m in public. It certainly doesn’t belong to any jackboot that comes along. I’m sure I can be tracked but it would be hugely expensive for anyone to bother.

1. As with all things gub-mint (also the trial bar and the DemocRATs who are stalking their opposition)—this is WAY over-done. The entire system needs to be told—GET A BRAIN, DO THIS RIGHT. Let’s not have another screw-up, like OweBama-Care.

2.  “I’m sure I can be tracked but it would be hugely expensive for anyone to bother.”

There is a very simple solution—turn off your phone. Turn it on, only when needed. Works for James Bond. Should work for anyone. Also, per Jason Bourne—go pre-paid.

3. Also know, in the case of serious car accident, the authorities always get wireless records. And any on-board computer chips (ABS, brakes, fuel injection).

If it’s that secretive and you are concerned about your location,etc. DON’T take the cell phone with you. People you can live w/o a cell for a couple of hours (you will not perish)!!

they do not seem to be listening in on “corporate crime”.

Nothing wrong with some unknown ones’ listening to your private conversations; simply because a few guys (e.g. from U.K. or Israel) are always capable to listening, doesn’t matter how many laws are made or passed.
All a phone user can do is: do not commit disguised something that needs to be hidden.

Bunny (Beatrice) L. Rinehuls-Herl

July 12, 2012, 3:25 a.m.

I once asked for a list of 911 calls made from my phones during a year-and a half period to show that numerous times this neighbor of mine has had the dog ordinances explained to him in English, Spanish and American Profanity and he failed to take appropriate action.  I noticed that the list just happened to cover a weekend in which the police were called by me emergently Fri., Sat., and Sunday and NOT ONE CALL FROM MY PHONES WAS LISTED THOUGH THE POLICE CAME IN CROWDS PRACTICALLY TO JUST “GET PAID TO NOT DO THEIR JOBS”.  From 2 to 5 patrol cars had been in my yard on two of those days as a drunken ex-boyfriend had threatened me and proceeded to kick in my back door, enter my kitchen and pull a long bread knife on me in front of a witness. The doctored call list is evidence in and of itself that some of the police not only fail to perform their duties, they will destroy evidence in an effort to keep this a secret and cover it up.  It is safe to say I called the police from 12-14 times and yet not one 911 call showed on the list because they failed to make an appropriate arrest and/or protect me from an assailant.  Breaking and Entering an Occupied Dwelling and threatening bodily harm with a weapon is likely a charge carrying fifteen years.  On the third day when I called an officer an asshole I was arrested…It is against the law, I later read in the statutes but was wondering if there was any ambiguity if the word was uttered in factual truth and not just in my opinion…

I wish we had this in South Africa. Everything is so corrupt and anarchic just under the surface of touristy calm, it’s amazing. Unfortunately 3/4’s of the crime fighting agencies themselves will have to be put behind bars… Be happy in your police state. Big Brother is looking after you.

they do not seem to be listening in on “corporate crime”.

How do you know? Got some proof?

All the Gov’t “intell” agencies…NSA, CIA, FBI have been listening for years on land line and cell phones…even before 9/11. Recall the FBI Chicgo agents Robert Wright and John Vincent 1995 investigation Operation “Vulgar Portrayal” (OVP) tracking the money being laundered and funneled through Saudi Inc’s/charities set up in the USA. “Ptech, Inc” and “Holy Land” and identified the multimillionare Saudi & Egyptians funneling millions to support OBLiden/Al Queda and Hamas and the BANKSters where their accounts were. The
OVP investigation was SHUT down and Robert ,Mueller/FBI) would not allow Agent Wright to testifiy at the 9/11 Congressional Hearings nor at the 9/11 Commission hearings. If they are going to have investigations and intell agencies track/listen/record conversations yet if it is considered sensitive or a threat to the House of Bush, House of Saud and are shut down and covered up….like the 28 pages missing and CLASSIFED by “W” from the 9/11 Commission Report re: the Saudi connections…YET listen to supposedly just a million calls to arrest and convict Americans….but cover up MAJOR crimes by those in the House of Bribery and Corruption” in Washington D.C. is excuse me, is a big crock of hypocrisy crap.  Should NOT be any exceptions to arresting ANYBODY if they knowingly participate in supporting terrorism…..treason against the USA!  Kudos to Agent Wright, Vincent, Coleen Rawley, Sibel Edmonds for telling the TRUTH.

follow up….former Congressman/Governor of Florida, Bob Graham and the families of the 9/11 victims are continuing their efforts to have the 28 pages unclassifed/released that was taken out of the 9/11 Congressional Hearings. Bob Graham, chaired the 9/11 Congressional Hearings. Bob Graham and the families of the 9/11 victims have formally asked President Obama to release the classified “28 pages” to the public.

Monitoring/listening/tracking/recording home & cell phones, emails, faxs, internet accounts is NOT going to stop, not now, not ever.
Hopefully, Congress will NOT allow “censorship” of the internet. and support the “Declaration of Internet Freedom”....Rep. Darryl Issa (CA) joined Monday, July 9th, 2012! He’s the ONLY one in the House of Corruption to sign on in support of the “Declaration” to protect the censoring of the internet. .

“...would cripple investigations into violent crimes like kidnapping.”

Sure.  It’s well-known that it’s impossible to convince a judge to sign a warrant in kidnapping cases, right?  Those judges love it when kidnappers go free and children die, I hear.  Or…maybe the cops are full of it.

Look, the problem isn’t “listening in.”  The problem is pervasive tracking without probable cause.

We live in one of the first countries to agree that the government needs to follow laws just like the people do.  That’s to prevent a corrupt official from monitoring you UNTIL you commit a crime, for example, just because you disagree with him.  For example, with simple algebra (finding quadratic roots, specifically), you can use that data to prove someone was speeding.

It also minimizes the chance of an innocent person being harassed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time or being convicted on a hypothesis.  The example in the article was about requesting information for a tower, which means that anybody who happened to be in range is suddenly a suspect.  Are you sure your alibi is that good for every moment of your life if the real perpetrator doesn’t (duh!) carry his cellphone to his crimes?

Also, who’s to say (since there’s no review for a warrant) that these were for criminal cases and not, for example, tracking an ex-spouse for evidence in a custody hearing?  I have a few cops in my family, and they tell stories a lot like that about their coworkers.

When a government agency breaks its laws, it’s just as wrong as when we break a law (moreso, actually).  This prevents our country from becoming a police state, no matter who’s in charge.

(There’s another issue at work, here, too.  When they collect that data, how secure is it?  Can we guarantee that nobody can break into their computer or that a rogue cop won’t sell it to the highest bidder?  Any collection like that is a heck of a target.  Personally, I lead a boring life, but I wouldn’t want a burglar to get hold of information showing that I’m pretty consistently away from the house for most of the day.  I also might not want it public that I’m meeting a friend for lunch if she’s about to leave her husband, say.  Not everything people do in private is criminal and/or immoral.)

This isn’t hard.  If a cop wants to gather information without the explicit consent of the investigative targets or immediate cause for search (the information is in imminent danger of destruction/erasure), he should take it to a judge and get a warrant, always and without exception.

Other, smaller items:

I can’t help chuckling that the “you have nothing to fear unless you have something to hide” people are posting under pseudonyms.  What do YOU fear?  Why not post your full name, address, and life history?  Perhaps you value your privacy?

Turn off the cellphone?  Ask John Ardito and Peter Peluso (Genovese mobsters in Jersey) how well that worked out for them in 2004.  The FBI got a valid warrant in that case, but they convinced Nextel to remotely activate their phones and turn on the microphones.  Don’t think for a minute that your provider can’t do the same to get everybody’s location, if they want it, unless by “off,” you mean pulling out the batteries.

Last, for people who carry a cellphone (I’m not one—they don’t fit my lifestyle), leaving it home isn’t an option unless they know they’re about to commit a crime, guys!  The whole point is to have it available in an emergency.  To suggest leaving it at home is telling people to walk to the nearest payphone if they get into an accident.

That also indicates a flaw in this brazen data collection:  Smart criminals aren’t going to carry their phone into their heists, or they’ll use rotating pre-paid phones and accounts to make tracking difficult.  So the only people you CAN’T track are the people the police presumably WANT to track.  When the plan consistently fails and it consistently hurts innocent people, it’s not very smart to support the plan, is it?

When ever I read these kinds of stories I shake my finger at journalist.

Let’s talk about the real watchers.

1. How is that we allowed Google to follow us any place on earth and beyond.

2.The corporations that opt you in for services automatically without any indication they have done so.

I can go on at infinitum and there is no indication anyone is making a case against.

the BIG BROTHERS do not ask for this information and it has been been granted to them by court order as we would have our government do.

Explain that PLEASE!!!!!

T Jones, the big problem with that side of things is that there’s no law binding private actors.  I’m within my rights to hire a private investigator to follow you around and record you for the rest of your life, if I can find you.  There are some minimal restrictions as to what I can do with the information, and you might be able to sue me about other minor aspects, but on the whole, it’s legal.

For Google, it’s even more difficult, because, from their perspective, you’re volunteering this information.  You put your e-mail, search information, video-watching habits, and so forth in their hands (you’re pushing it to their servers, and your browser sends them more), and they gain a legitimate business advantage in retaining that information to improve your service, just like the “loyalty card” for your local supermarket that records your every purchase for a discount.

A company like Google has a further defense that they don’t deny anybody service if they refuse to provide them with information.  They don’t ban you from their services for using a proxy, anonymizing their cookie, or installing something like Ghostery that disables most tracking.  The only time tracking is “mandatory” is when you’re logged in—if they ignore who you are, they can’t give you the right mail.

(By contrast, the police believe that you have no say or legal interest in what they collect.  In their opinion, the information is property of the service provider alone.)

But there’s a gap in the law, basically.  The law protects these private actors in ways they don’t protect governments (barring idiocy like the Patriot Act), but they fail to recognize that many of these large actors like Google (and cellphone providers, and banks) are increasingly governing us by opening their common spaces to the public.

And especially as the government tries increasingly to hide behind these private actors to avoid Constitutional and other legal restrictions (deputizing them, in many cases), it seems like they should in turn be bound by the same laws.  But that’s not yet the case.

” I’m within my rights to hire a private investigator to follow you around and record you for the rest of your life, if I can find you.”
No, you’re not.  Unless the PI is willing to break the stalking laws, works where licensing is lax, etc.
The truth is however that PIs use cell phones to track their targets on a routine basis, and without a warrant.  I’m retired from that game, but I did it for years.  No, I won’t tell you how.


1. Turn off your phone’s GPS function. Read the dang instructions. Or ask a kid.

2. TURN OFF THE PHONE and use only when needed.


The truth is however that PIs use cell phones to track their targets on a routine basis, and without a warrant.  I’m retired from that game, but I did it for years.  No, I won’t tell you how.

Baron, fair enough.  I was mildly exaggerating, but didn’t realize the extent of stalking legislation.  Still, I think there’s substantial leeway before that point comes.

JR, again, go look up the FBI case.  It was all over the news.  The phone company turned on the phone remotely to secretly listen in on conversations.  Presumably, those were cheap feature-phones, back then.  Today, smartphones would be even easier to activate any feature remotely—if a technician can get in at all, he can activate or deactivate anything he wants.  It’s not like they need to flip a physical switch.

Also, disabling the GPS (a) negates the benefits of the police using the GPS to find you in an emergency and (b) ignores the original article, which discussed using cellphone towers to track, rather than GPS.

So, no.  Turning off GPS won’t work, because it’s easy to turn back on with a connection and there are other routes you can’t turn off.  Turning off the phone won’t work because the companies presumably retain the ability to turn them back on.

As I said, yanking the battery MIGHT work, assuming there isn’t a backup.  That would “turn it off” to a level where even the “reactivate” signal wouldn’t get through.  But then, in an emergency, you own two small pieces of plastic puzzle pieces.  Or you own an iPhone and it takes a team of “Geniuses” to get the battery in and out.

This should surprise no one, but I’m sure it does anyway.  Thank you for this article; we all need to be reminded from time to time. 
      I wonder if anyone has reflected that, all the uncertainty that shaped the very structure of this article shows that laws are simply not in place to protect the privacy of individuals. 
      Arguably, law never has been and never will be in place to protect people’s privacy in any meaningful way.  The phrase “no reasonable expectation of privacy” applies to more than just mobile phone users.
      Most of the so-called erosion of Constitutional rights observable in my lifetime has been in the realm of public opinion.  What I mean is, governments start breaking rules from the very beginning; nevertheless, the general public seems to get less and less concerned about this fact.
      Such a “triumph of the swill” is especially chilling when you consider the mounting evidence all around us that we do indeed live in a “police state” where people’s “rights” are mostly theoretical.
      Questions containing the phrase “do police have the right” are always just a bad joke—totally irrelevant if you examine police work with any realism.
      I think this article illustrates the problem very well.

George A. Hoffman

July 12, 2012, 6:58 p.m.

Really bizarre story. Big Brother or the Keystone Kops? Perhaps a little of both. When did Americans get so scared of their own shadows? After the 9/11 attacks? Perhaps.
But just like the war on drugs, the war on terrorism is more about a out-of-control public servants obsessed with power like junkies jonesing for the their next fix, as WiIliam Burroughs wrote about so corrosively way back in 1959 in his satire, Naked Lunch.

Of course, “You have nothing to fear if you’re doing nothing wrong”.


George A. Hoffman

July 12, 2012, 7:54 p.m.

Stephen, I liked your comeback. Take Care.

You’re comparing the FBI with Barney Fife?



JR, again, go look up the FBI case.  It was all over the news.  The phone company turned on the phone remotely to secretly listen in on conversations.

JR, do you think the FBI did it by hiring some mad scientist?  They asked the carrier (or manufacturer) to do it.  And if your carrier will give up your position, trust me, they’re not going to balk at turning your phone on.

And anybody who can turn your phone on can also know where you are, even when the phone is off.

Technology is pretty easy like that.  Phones don’t refuse to report back just because it’s not a Federal badge being waved.

I mean, if you feel safe turning off your phone, go ahead, but the facts about the gadgets argue that it’s only false security.

Scott, it depends on how you look at things.  First, the law (the Bill of Rights) is pretty clear on privacy from a search and seizure standpoint.  Second, over a century ago, then-students Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis sort of created defamation law in “A Right to Privacy” (worth the read, available widely on the Internet, since it was published in 1890 and Brandeis acquired a certain fame and all), in response to the rising privacy threat created by cameras that don’t take fifteen minutes for an exposure.

So, we do have the right to privacy by various laws.  It’s just that government officials have increasingly been of the opinion that our rights are somehow too burdensome, the introduction of new technology creates some sort of magical world where searching something (a computer) somehow doesn’t constitute “a search,” and hiding behind a private intermediary allows them to ignore Constitutional protections.

@J.R., only a stupid GOP dunce like you tries to prove a negative, which is impossible by the way.

Go ahead and vote for RMonye Mittens / Noodle’s….who has no policy at all other than “not Obama”  perfect for you dumbed down bigots.

Obama 2012.

Dim-wit, only a stupid STEAL-O-CRAT dunce like you tries to prove a negative, which is impossible by the way.

OweBama kills jobs.

Solution all you wireless companies send any request for location data or call records via text to the phone number the information is being requested for unless the request is acompanied by a warrant. If there is not a warrant then you should be free to disclose that information to your customers.

John, thank you for the Warren and Brandeis tip.
      Let me point out that I have not said laws do not exist, but rather, laws are not in place to protect people’s privacy in any meaningful way.  I did not say laws do not exist; that would just be naive.
      My comment regards the impotence of law, not the existence or nonexistence of laws about privacy.
      In life there is theory and there is practice.  I’m sure Warren and Brandeis got an “A” on their paper, because their skill at grasping and postulating theory is sound and must have impressed their professor.
      In the practice of law as in the practice of law enforcement, however, defending commoners is unlikely to result in cash and prizes.  I say that because the culture in the USA is (in)famously plutocratic and deeply classist any way you look at it.  No, we’re hardly the worst on Earth in that regard, but we’re workin’ on it.
      I do sincerely thank you for introducing me to “The Right to Privacy” by Warren and Brandeis.  As you promised, it is well “worth the read.”  On the other hand, so is Tolkien’s LORD OF THE RINGS, another famous work that suggests little guys have a chance.

(Apologies if I’m rambling…)

Actually, Scott, more than anything, my point was that we’ve been here before and everybody walked away happy.  Prior to Brandeis and Warren, defamation “law” was primarily handled by duels.  If someone spread a rumor about you, you confronted them and put your life on the line like a fool.  Standing in front of your accuser was (among the rich) assumed to be evidence of your honor.

(It actually wasn’t quite as barbaric as it sounds, though.  The threat of death encouraged the “seconds” to negotiate some kind of settlement in private to call the duel off.  The ones we hear about are, of course, those where that had failed or one party wasn’t aware of the “second” concept.)

The camera (and widespread publishing) changed things.  Now, you could send a snapshot to a local tabloid and air someone’s dirty laundry.  Not only is dueling a bit stupid, but you can’t exactly challenge the New York Times to pistols at dawn.  Instead, you sue for libel, intrusion of solitude, and so on.  (The article spurred the debate that resulted in these laws, as far as I can tell; I didn’t mean to imply that it relatted directly to law.)

Now, networked devices are changing things again.  However, they shouldn’t, because the laws are already in place to handle a lot of this, and it’s frustrating to see the government types completely ignoring that.  Facebook consistently violates appropriation laws, for example (“John Smith likes this”), and their constant messing with privacy settings should amount to intrusion of solitude (suddenly, your list of friends is public!).  The way the phone companies manage your phones should certainly be intrusion of solitude, not to mention defamation if it’s involving you in a criminal investigation when you’re innocent.  Forget about warrantless wiretapping…

So, the law is all there.  The problem is that the government is effectively protecting these companies from any complaints because it benefits them.  Judges throw out cases under the premise that the company owns the information, rather than you, so you have no standing to block the government, while offering immunity to companies that cooperate.  They also interpret the laws very narrowly or loosely (until demanded otherwise by a higher court or new law) when it benefits them, rather than in the public interest.

I agree with you in principle, but the detail is that the law does protect us.  The government increasingly does not, however.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:

Dragnets: Tracking Censorship and Surveillance

ProPublica investigates the threats to privacy in an era of cellphones, data mining and cyberwar.

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