July 10, 2012

Wireless Companies Report Dramatic Rise In Surveillance Requests

redOrbit Staff & Wire Reports - Your Universe Online

Wireless carriers received more than 1.3 million requests for customer cell phone records from federal, state and local law enforcement agencies in 2011, sometimes with little judicial oversight and no consumer knowledge, according to a recent congressional inquiry into wireless surveillance practices.

These requests, which have skyrocketed in the past few years, include information about an individual's text messages, caller locations and other data, as well as “cell tower dumps” in which carriers must provide all phone numbers connected to a specific cell tower at a particular time.

The story was first reported on Sunday by The New York Times, whose previous article on the issue prompted the current congressional probe.

The startling figures were revealed in responses by nine major U.S. wireless carriers to letters sent by Representative Ed Markey (D-MA), who inquired last month about the policies and practices in place for sharing subscriber information with law enforcement.

“We cannot allow privacy protections to be swept aside with the sweeping nature of these information requests, especially for innocent consumers,” said Representative Markey, senior member of the Energy and Commerce Committee and co-Chair of the Congressional Bi-Partisan Privacy Caucus.

“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.”

Markey sent his inquiries to U.S. Cellular, Sprint Nextel, T-Mobile USA Inc., Leap Wireless Inc./ Cricket Communications, Inc., MetroPCS, Verizon Communications Inc., AT&T, C Spire Wireless and TracFone Wireless.  T-Mobile did not disclose the specific number of law enforcement requests it had received, but did provide other data included in Markey´s report.

Verizon and AT&T, the nation´s two largest wireless carriers, reported 260,000 requests in 2011, while Sprint said it had received about 500,000 requests.

AT&T said it responds, on average, to more than 700 requests per day, including 230 that do not require court orders because authorities claim an imminent threat of serious injury or death. These figures are roughly triple the number of requests it received in 2007, the company said.

Indeed, the number of law enforcement requests for customer cell phone records soared in 2011, growing from roughly 3,000 wiretaps issued nationwide in 2010 to 1.3 million requests for cell phone records in 2011 (excluding T-Mobile).

Verizon told Markey it had seen a 15% average annual increase in the number of requests over the last 5 years, while T-Mobile reported annual increases of approximately 12%-16%. T-Mobile said it had referred two inappropriate law enforcement requests to the FBI during the past three years.

The wireless companies did not disclose the specific types of law enforcement agencies collecting the customer data, saying only that they ran the gamut from basic investigations by local police departments to sophisticated financial crimes and intelligence probes at the state and federal levels, The New York Times reported.

Markey´s report represents the first time data about the frequency of wireless surveillance by law enforcement has been gathered on a national basis.

Civil liberties groups, along with lawmakers such as Markey, were shocked by the figures, prompting serious concerns about whether appropriate safeguards exist to protect the privacy rights of U.S. citizens.

“I never expected it to be this massive,” Markey told The New York Times.

“Wow.  Sometimes one word says it all,” wrote Chris Calabrese, Legislative Counsel at the American Civil Liberties Union´s Washington Legislative Office.

“What an extraordinary number: more than a million accounts subject to at least some level of law enforcement investigation just in 2011.”

“Everyone whose phone has been used by a particular cell tower over a particular time period–likely hundreds or thousands of people–could have their data examined by investigators,” said Calabrese, referring to records of cell tower dumps that, in many cases, include information on innocent people unrelated to any law enforcement investigation.

AT&T said in its response to Markey that it now has more than 100 full time employees assigned exclusively to handling law enforcement requests, while Verizon has 70 and Sprint has 226.