US Mobile Carriers Handing Over Millions Of Records To Law Agencies
December 11, 2013

US Mobile Carriers Handing Over Millions Of Records To Law Agencies

Peter Suciu for - Your Universe Online

According to reports this week, United States law enforcement agencies have submitted more than a million requests per year for data to American mobile carriers since 2010.

On Monday, US Senator Edward Markey (D-Mass) released details that document the requests by law enforcement agencies to the major US mobile phone carriers. The information provided to law enforcement included details on numbers dialed, location data and even the contents of communication. Markey posted the findings on his website.

The New York Times reported that most of these requests were for information from specific customer accounts, but law enforcement agencies also received more general information that included data from 9,000 so-called “tower dumps,” in which the agencies were provided access to data from all the handsets that connected to a cellular site during a specified period of time.

Markey requested the reports from seven carriers: Verizon Wireless, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, C Spire, US Cellular and Cricket Communications/Leap Wireless.

On Monday he said that he would introduce legislation to curb this practice of “bulk” collection of phone records.

“As law enforcement uses new technology to protect the public from harm, we also must protect the information of innocent Americans from misuse,” Markey said in a statement, as reported by the French news agency AFP. “We need a Fourth Amendment for the 21st century," he said, referring to the constitutional guarantee against unreasonable searches and seizures.

“Disclosure of personal information from wireless devices raises significant legal and privacy concerns, particularly for innocent consumers,” the Senator added. “That is why I plan to introduce legislation so that Americans can have confidence that their information is protected and standards are in place for the retention and disposal of this sensitive data.”

Markey requested the reports from the seven carriers as part of an audit, which was an update to a similar audit he conducted a year earlier as a member of the US House of Representatives.

There were 1.1 million requests by law enforcement agencies for phone data in 2012, which was actually down from the 1.3 million requests made a year earlier. However, the number of requests in 2012 also apparently fell to some degree as Sprint, the third-largest American carrier, did not answer all of Markey’s questions.

Some carriers also appeared to be more heavily targeted by law enforcement than others, and Forbes noted that “T-Mobile would appear to cater to customers who are particularly interesting to law enforcement given that they get the same number of requests as AT&T but have a third of the customer base.”

The website PrivacySOS now provides charts about how long the carriers hold on to user data and even provides details on the legal requirements that are necessary for law enforcement agencies to get access to it.

In many cases Markey found that it is just as often local police as it is government agencies that are now requesting this data.

“This isn’t the NSA asking for information,” Markey told the Washington Post. “It’s your neighborhood police department requesting your mobile phone data. So there are serious questions about how law enforcement handles the information of innocent people swept up in these digital dragnets.”

One other notable piece of this is that Markey inquired about how much in compensation the carriers are paid for providing assistance to law enforcement agencies. Neither Sprint nor Cricket would provide the totals they provided or received from the government, but Cricket apparently noted that law enforcement is often slow to pay up.

This full report has already gotten the attention of privacy advocates.

“Have no doubt, police see our mobile devices as the go-to source for information, likely in part because of the lack of privacy protections afforded by the law,” Christopher Calabrese, of the ACLU, said in a statement as reported by AFP. “Our mobile devices quite literally store our most intimate thoughts as well as the details of our personal lives. The idea that police can obtain such a rich treasure trove of data about any one of us without appropriate judicial oversight should send shivers down our spines.”