Some of the nation’s largest wireless carriers say they last year collectively received some 1.3 million requests from law enforcement for customers’ phone records – a number that continues to rise. The information shared with police includes geolocation information, content of text messages, wiretaps and aggregated cell tower activity for a specific block of time.
The responses from nine mobile phone providers underscored a New York Times report that cell phone tracking is now routinely used by police. The newspaper investigation prompted a congressional inquiry and the requests from Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), who is a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Markey released data from those letters this week.
Among the responses:
- No. 1 U.S. carrier Verizon Wireless received about 260,000 requests last year – up 15 percent from a year ago
- AT&T responded to 181,100 criminal subpoenas and warrants in 2011, compared to 135,800 in 2010 and 100,00 four years before. It also rejected 965 surveiilance orders last year, compared with 425 in 2007.
- Sprint, the nation’s third-largest carrier, had the most requests at 500,000 last year, but the number of customers may have been higher since “each subpoena typically requested subscriber information on multiple subscribers”
- T-Mobile didn’t release specifics but said “the number of requests has risen dramatically in the last decade with an annual increase of approximately 12-16 percent.”
Such increases are not necessarily surprising, given how many people now use cell phones and smart phones to communicate through e-mail, text messaging and social media. But the number of criminal subpeonas, which require less judicial oversight than a full warrant, does concern civil libertarians.
“The numbers don’t lie: location tracking is out of control,” Chris Calabrese, legal counsel for the ACLU Washington Legislative Office, wrote in response to the report.
Sprint’s response suggests companies need more congressional clarity on geolocation requests. “The absense of a clear statutory framework regarding the legal requirements for provision of location information to the government and ambiguity arising from the evolving case law suggest Congress should clarify the law to provide certainty for all stakeholders,” said Vonya B. McCann, Senior Vice President of Government Affairs.
The upswing in police requests has prompted the companies to beef up response teams. For instance, AT&T said it employs 100 full-time workers to handle such requests. Verizon has 70 employees who work ’round the clock on fulfillment where appropriate.
To cover the costs associated with reviewing and, when warranted, processing requests, carriers have begun charging agencies for the records. AT&T collected almost $8.3 million in 2011 in such fees, while U.S. Cellular charges police $25 beyond the first three requests to locate a cellphone using GPS. It charges a similar fee to retrieve a user’s text messages and $50 for a “cell tower dump.”
That last service is particularly troublesome to Markey, who said in a statement: “”We cannot allow privacy protections to be swept aside with the sweeping nature of these information requests, especially for innocent consumers. Law enforcement agencies are looking for a needle, but what are they doing with the haystack?
“We need to know how law enforcement differentiates between records of innocent people, and those that are subjects of investigation, as well as how it handles, administers and disposes of this information.”