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