Police across the United States asked cellphone providers for the phone records, text message transcripts, location data and other information of at least 1.3 million customers during 2011, according to a Congressman investigating the practice.
Some of the data provided to Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), the lawmaker who carried out the investigation, indicated that the number of police requests to mobile carriers have exploded over the past five years. Law enforcement requests to AT&T alone more than doubled from 125,425 in 2007 to 261,365 in 2011 — approximately 700 requests every day.
One type of law enforcement request, wherein police ask cell providers for a so-called “dump” of information about subscribers near a certain cell tower at a given point in time, may mean that thousands more people have been involved in police requests.
Markey called the results of his investigation — the most thorough inquiry into the practice thus far — “startling.”
“We cannot allow privacy protections to be swept aside with the sweeping nature of these information requests, especially for innocent consumers,” said Markey 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.”
Markey initially requested the information in May after reading about the practice. Nine carriers have returned letters detailing each company’s procedures when police request users’ information.
Verizon Wireless, for instance, has a “team of trained employees and managers” that responded to more than 700 police requests each day in 2011. The company noted that it requires a warrant from police in all but the most extreme circumstances.
“Unless a customer consents to the release of the information or law enforcement certifies that there is an emergency involving danger of death or serious physical injury, we do not release location information to law enforcement without a signed warrant or order from a judge,” reads Verizon’s letter, which also stressed that the company prioritizes customer privacy.
Other carriers also said they require a warrant in most cases and sometimes deny requests in the interest of customer privacy. Sprint, for example, detailed a sort of investigative Pong process in which some requests bounced between the company and police while escalating up the chain of command on either side.
About 88% of American adults now own a cell phone, while 46% of them own a smartphone. Both types of devices are capable of storing an immense amount of data that can be useful to police investigations.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation called the report an indication of a “privacy disaster” in a blog post on Monday. The EFF urged cell phone providers to follow the example set by Google and Twitter, both of which deliver transparency reports about police and government requests for users’ data.
Should cellphone providers publish reports about police requests for users’ information? Share your thoughts in the comments.