Law Enforcement Wants Your Private Cellphone Data. Wireless Carriers Will Hand it Over, for a Fee.

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
July 9 2012 5:10 PM

Law Enforcement Wants Your Private Cellphone Data. Wireless Carriers Will Hand it Over, for a Fee.

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Wireless carriers field thousands of law enforcement requests per day for customers' private records.

auremar / shutterstock.com

If cops or federal agents want to secretly listen in on your phone conversation, they generally need a court order. If they want to grab your cell phone records, however, a decent excuse and a little cash will often do the trick. Thanks to a new report from Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., we now know that law enforcement makes thousands of such requests every day.

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

A little background: In March, the ACLU obtained a huge trove of documents which revealed that:

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  • cellphone tracking is rampant
  • legal checks are loose and inconsistent
  • the tracking often extends far beyond individual suspects to include all the people they talk to and sometimes even all the people who are using a particular cellphone tower at a given time
  • wireless carriers collect fees from law enforcement in exchange for handing over their customers’ data

Disturbed by that report, Markey’s office wrote to the nation’s carriers asking them just how many requests for customers’ data they’ve gotten from law enforcement agencies, and how they’ve dealt with them. The findings are staggering.

The major wireless carriers received more than 1.3 million requests from law enforcement in 2011 alone, and the number has been growing every year. And that doesn’t include T-Mobile’s numbers, since the company declined to give out that information. The requests have been so voluminous that the big carriers have hired huge teams of employees to field them: Sprint alone has 226 workers responding to surveillance requests, security researcher Christopher Soghoian notes.

As Markey explains in a report on his findings, only a tiny minority of the requests are for actual wiretaps (3,000 in 2010). That’s surely because there’s a well-established legal process for wiretap warrants, so they can only be used on bona fide suspects. Far more often, it seems, law enforcement agencies content themselves with obtaining GPS data and other records for which the legal standards are murkier. AT&T, for instance, says it turns over such data:

... to comply with court orders, subpoenas, lawful discovery requests and legal and regulatory requirements; to provide information regarding the caller’s location to a public safety entity when a call is made to 911; and to notify or respond to a responsible governmental entity if we reasonably believe, based on information provided by law enforcement personnel, that an emergency involving immediate danger of death or serious physical injury to any person requires or justifies disclosure without delay.

Those all sound like potentially valid reasons, depending on the circumstances. But 1.3 million requests a year? Call me a cynic, but something tells me that not every one of those was a life-threatening emergency.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

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