Police surveillance of U.S. mobile phone users has skyrocketed

Police surveillance of U.S. citizens' cell phone data has skyrocketed

The number of U.S. law enforcement requests for cell phone users’ records jumped to more than 1.3 million in 2011, according to a Congressional inquiry. The audit, performed at the request of Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA), is the first of its kind, and reveals just commonplace wireless surveillance has become over the last five years.

” We cannot allow privacy protections to be swept aside with the sweeping nature of these information requests, especially for innocent consumers,” said Rep. Markey, co-chairman of the Bipartisan Congressional Privacy Caucus, in a statement. “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.”

The inquiry, first reported by The New York Times on Sunday evening, involved nine U.S. wireless carriers, including Verizon, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile, the four largest cell phone carriers in the country. C Spire, Leap/Cricket, MetroPCS, TracFone, and U.S. Cellular also responded to Rep. Markey’s request for information.

The information revealed to law enforcement runs the full gamut available, said Rep. Markey’s office, such as geolocation data collected by cell towers and GPS, the content of text messages, and wiretap data. Carriers also supply law enforcement with full “cell phone tower dumps,” which includes all phone calls made from a particular cellular tower during a specified period of time, a practice that often hands over the private data of innocent individuals to the authorities.

Verizon told Rep. Markey (pdf) that it received about 260,000 requests from law enforcement throughout 2011. Approximately half of these were subpoenas, which generally allow law enforcement to access “the type of information on a phone bill,” like call records, name, and address. “The other half were warrants and orders (generally for phone bill information, wireaps, pen registers, traps and traces, text message information and location) or emergency request,” wrote Verizon in their letter to Congress.

In its response to Rep. Markey (pdf), AT&T revealed that it processes about 700 requests from law enforcement every day. Of those, about 230 are “emergency” requests, which do not require a search warrant in order for the company to legally provide law enforcement with data. AT&T says it has about 100 employees tasked exclusively with processing law enforcement requests “on a 24×7 basis.”

T-Mobile did not provide any details about the actual number of requests T-Mobile receives from law enforcement, but did say (pdf) that it has seen an increase of between 12 and 16 percent over the past decade — a jump the company described as “dramatic.”( Verizon saw a similar increase.) Sprint also provided less detailed data about the number of requests, but did say (pdf) it received about 1,500 requests from law enforcement daily during 2011, which equals to about 500,000 total — more than any other carrier.

Law enforcement authorities assert that access to this kind of data — especially location data — is crucial for solving crimes. But the laws on how they obtain this data, what constitutes an “emergency,” and other key details remain vague, and lack clear standards by which the wireless carriers can abide — a problem some say Congress needs to resolve.

As Sprint Senior Vice President of Government Affairs writes in response to Rep. Markey: “The absence 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 stakeholders.” 

To view all letters to Rep. Markey from the wireless carriers, click here.

Image via  Pavel Ignatov/Shutterstock


Apple’s new iPads are hardly new at all. Don’t waste your money

It has taken Apple four years to get around to updating the iPad Mini line, but the new iPad Mini is virtually identical to its predecessor. It’s joined by a confusing iPad Air with no obvious target audience. Is Apple just trying to sell…

FCC to help first responders pinpoint 911 callers in multistory buildings

When someone calls 911 from their cell phone, wireless carriers provide operators with an approximate location. Now the FCC wants the carriers to provide vertical location data to pinpoint 911 callers inside multi-story buildings.

Free yourself! How to unlock a phone from the icy hands of your wireless carrier

Do you want to know how to unlock a phone through your carrier or a third-party service like DoctorSIM? Regardless of which way you want to go, we've compiled a list of requirements and methods for doing so.

5G is going to cost you a few bucks more, at least on Verizon

Verizon is in the midst of a massive 5G rollout. In addition to fixed 5G service, it will also begin deploying mobile 5G in the coming months. Here's everything you need to know about Verizon's 5G network and when it will be in your town.

Pre-orders open for the 5G Moto Mod, making the Moto Z3 fully 5G-compatibile

5G is the future of mobile internet, and you've probably heard about the huge speed increases the new standard will bring. But not every phone will be capable of accessing 5G speeds. Here's every phone that supports 5G.

These voice-changing apps will have you punking friends and family like a pro

Have you ever wanted to call your friends as Darth Vader or Alvin from the Chipmunks? If you want to play a prank on your friends, we have the best voice-changer apps for iOS and Android, whether you want to record audio or make a call.

Even older Apple Watches could be effective at spotting heart conditions

The Apple Watch Series 4 is known for detecting heart conditions like atrial fibrillation thanks to having an electrocardiograph feature. It turns out that older Apple Watches could be effective at tracking AFib, too.

iPad Air vs. iPad Mini: Which new tablet from Apple is best for you?

Apple has unveiled two new iPad models, including a new iPad Air and a new iPad Mini. Both devices have a lot to offer. But which iPad is right for your needs? We put the iPad Air and iPad Mini to the test to find out.

The best Apple AirPods alternatives for Android, Windows, and iOS devices

Apple AirPods, nice as they are, aren't the only game in town. Other makers are offering their own truly wireless earbuds, and if you're looking to buy a pair of high-end in-ear headphones, we've got the best AirPod alternatives on the…

The Black Shark 2’s Ludicrous Mode promises the smoothest mobile gaming

Xiaomi-backed Black Shark has a follow-up to last year's Black Shark gaming phone, complete with high specs and a low price. Here's everything we know about the Black Shark 2 gaming phone.

Need a new tablet? Here are the best iPad deals for March 2019

In the wide world of tablets, Apple is still the king. If you're on team Apple and just can't live without iOS, we've curated an up-to-date list of all of the best iPad deals currently available for March 2018.

Amazon drops price on Apple Watch Series 4 with a rare deal

Since Apple first unveiled the Series 4, the price for one has pretty much held fast. This has finally started to change with a nice little $15 discount on Amazon. If you've been wanting the newest Apple Watch, now is a great time.

Sending SMS messages from your PC is easier than you might think

Texting is a fact of life, but what to do when you're in the middle of something on your laptop or just don't have your phone handy? Here's how to send a text message from a computer, whether you prefer to use an email client or Windows 10.

Google's midrange Pixels might be called the Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL

The Google Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL are considered to be two of the best Android smartphones, but it looks like Google could be prepping a midrange line. Say hello to the Pixel 3a and Pixel 3a XL.