Government Demands For User Information From Mobile Carriers Growing

July 9, 2012

The New York Times ran an article detailing the large numbers of information requests that wireless phone carriers in the United States get from the various law enforcement bodies seeking our private information regarding our cell phones. In most cases, as the article points out, these requests are not warrants — which must be approved by an independent judge — but instead are simply subpoenas issued by the law enforcement officer without oversight. The current state of the law permits this sort of access to data, but it should not. Congress should waste no time in taking up comprehensive reform of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act in response to these revelations, and give full warrant protections to user’s content online and in the mobile space, as well as to information about their whereabouts.

The top line takeaway from the New York Times article is that cell phone carriers in the United States responded to a grand total of 1.3 million demands from law enforcement for various kinds of information about their customers. CCIA also hopes the volume of demand will lead to more support for geolocation privacy legislation offered by Congressman Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah. The geolocation bill would require the government to show probable cause and get a warrant before requesting cell phone data. Senator Ron Wyden, D-Ore., has introduced a similar bill in the Senate.

The information made its way into the public eye thanks to an official request from Congressman Ed Markey, who earlier this year began making inquiries with the cell phone carriers about the sheer scale of the surveillance that was going on. While it’s somewhat shocking that we had to wait until 2012 to finally get an idea of the numbers involved, Markey deserves applause for bringing this information to light.
The 1.3 million requests for information from law enforcement amounts to about one request per 300 people in the United States and, as a number of the letters from the carriers in response to Markey explain, many requests either explicitly request or will end up returning information on more than one person. Statistically, there is a good chance that you or someone you know has had their information handed over to the police at some point.
Over the same time period, however, wiretap requests (which do require a warrant and permit the government to listen to the actual phone conversation) have fallen 14% according to records kept by the Administrative Office of the United States Courts. As access to our wireless data gets easier to obtain by government and we move to using communications methods that don’t involve voice such as email and text messaging, there is less reason for them to go through the process of getting a wiretap warrant.
Another disturbing fact that came to light from the releases is the fact that a decent portion of the requests may be in violation of the law. A number of the carriers detailed the number of requests that they refused to respond to because their lawyers determined they were not compatible with the law. One small carrier, C Spire Wireless, said that 15% of the demands it received over the last five years have been inappropriate and were rejected.

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