After months of public calls from privacy advocates and security experts, Verizon on Wednesday released its first transparency report, revealing that it received more than 164,000 subpoenas and between 1,000 and 2,000 National Security Letters in 2013. The report, which covers Verizon’s landline, Internet and wireless services, shows that the company also received 36,000 warrants, most of which requested location or stored content data.
Large Internet companies such as Google, Twitter, Facebook and Microsoft have been publishing transparency reports for several years now, detailing the volume and types of requests for information that they get from the government and law enforcement. The reports vary from company to company but typically include data on warrants, court orders and some information on NSLs. The government only allows companies to publish the volume of NSLs they receive in ranges of 1,000.
Critics have been pushing for mobile phone providers to publish similar reports, and those calls have grown louder in the months since the Edward Snowden NSA leaks began. Verizon is the second mobile phone provider to publish such a report, after Credo Mobile published its own earlier this month.
The most interesting piece of data in the report may be the fact that Verizon received about 35,000 requests for location information from law enforcement. More than two-thirds of those requests were in the form of court order. The company said that these kinds of requests are becoming more frequent every year.
“Verizon only produces location information in response to a warrant or order; we do not produce location information in response to a subpoena. Last year, we received about 35,000 demands for location data: about 24,000 of those were through orders and about 11,000 through warrants. In addition, we received about 3,200 warrants or court orders for “cell tower dumps” last year. In such instances, the warrant or court order compelled us to identify the phone numbers of all phones that connected to a specific cell tower during a given period of time. The number of warrants and orders for location information are increasing each year,” the report says.
Although some other companies will not produce location information and other sensitive data without a warrant, Verizon says in its report that it will do so “in response to a warrant or order”. The bar for a warrant is higher than it is for a typical court order, which only requires law enforcement to go before a judge. Warrants require a showing of probable cause that the data is somehow related to a crime.
More than half of the 321,545 total requests that Verizon received in 2013 were subpoenas. Unlike some other kinds of requests, the data that companies have turn over in response to a subpoena does not include content, such as texts or call content, but rather comprises information such as the name and address associated with a number or some transactional data. The company also received a large volume of court orders, more than 70,000. About 10 percent of those orders were pen register or trap and trace orders, which give law enforcement access to call data in real time.
“A pen register order requires us to provide law enforcement with real-time access to phone numbers as they are dialed, while a trap and trace order compels us to provide law enforcement with real-time access to the phone numbers from incoming calls. We do not provide any content in response to pen register or trap and trace orders. We received about 6,300 court orders to assist with pen registers or trap and traces last year, although generally a single order is for both a pen register and trap and trace. Far less frequently, we are required to assist with wiretaps, where law enforcement accesses the content of a communication as it is taking place. We received about 1,500 wiretap orders last year,” Verizon said in its report.
The restrictions that the government places on the way companies can report the number of NSLs they receive make it difficult to compare volumes between companies. However, the range of 1,0000-1,999 that Verizon reported is on the higher end of what’s been published by the various companies in their transparency reports recently. Unlike some of the other vendors who have published reports, Verizon detailed what kind of information it provides in response to an NSL.
“The FBI may seek only limited categories of information through an NSL: name, address, length of service and toll billing records. The FBI cannot obtain other information from Verizon, such as content or location information, through an NSL,” the report says.