Surveillance requests to cellphone carriers surge


Cops want to know who you call, where you are and what you texted.

Cops want to know who you call, where you are and what you texted.

Sadly many cellphone carriers will give this information to the cops without a search warrant.


Surveillance requests to cellphone carriers surge

Jul. 9, 2012 05:29 PM

Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- Law enforcement agencies in the U.S. made more than 1.3 million requests for consumers' cellphone records in 2011, an alarming surge over previous years that reflected the increasingly gray area between privacy and technology.

Cellphone carriers, responding to inquiries from a member of Congress, reported responding to as many as thousands of police requests daily for customers' locations, text messages and call details, frequently without warrants. Special legal teams operating round-the-clock have been set up to field requests, and some carriers hoping to recoup their costs have created detailed menus of what records can be provided -- and for what price.

The reports -- the first comprehensive review of the extent of law enforcement requests in the U.S. -- shed light on the difficulties cellphone carriers face in balancing consumer privacy and public safety. They also prompted civil libertarians to decry the lack of legal clarity about when and how carriers should hand over information about their customers.

At AT&T, a team of more than 100 workers handles the requests pouring in from local, state and federal law enforcement agencies. More than 250,000 such requests came in last year -- a more than two-fold increase over five years ago.

Sprint said it received about 500,000 subpoenas in 2011. Verizon and T-Mobile, two other major U.S. carriers, both reported annual increases in requests exceeding 12 percent. Cricket has seen a steady increase every year since 2007, and although the company once had a 10-person team handling inquiries, it has now outsourced that task to a company called Neustar.

Many of the requests cover a number of cellphone subscribers.

The costs have become so large that carriers have started charging law enforcement for the records they turn over. AT&T collected almost $8.3 million in 2011 in fees from police agencies, although the company said it believes that number falls far short of what it costs AT&T to accommodate the requests.

Police requesting data from U.S. Cellular are asked to pay $25 to locate a cellphone using GPS (the first three requests are free), $25 to retrieve a user's text messages and $50 for a "cell tower dump" -- a breakdown of all the cellphones that interacted with a given cellphone tower at a specific time.

"Cell phone records have clearly become central to many, many law enforcement investigations," said Chris Calabrese, an attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union. "The danger is that the standard is very unclear."

All the companies who responded to letters from Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., said that under normal circumstances, only requests that came with a warrant attached were granted. T-Mobile said it had referred two inappropriate requests from law enforcement to the FBI, and rejected other requests where people had impersonated police officers. Others said they complied with subpoenas, which don't require sign-off from a judge.

But there's a major exception for emergencies, or "exigent circumstances." If a 911 call center believes there is an immediate threat to someone's life, it can bypass the need for a prosecutor or a judge to sign off on the request. All that's needed, in most circumstances, is a simple form.

"If a victim goes missing and they had a cell phone with GPS technology, would you, as a loved one, want us to have to wait for a subpoena or court order even though we know someone might be in dire straits?" said Chris Perkins, the police chief in Roanoke, Va.

Federal law, which has yet to fully adapt to today's high-tech, wireless society, has much to say about wiretaps and home searches but surprisingly little to say about cellphone records. The law is especially vague when it comes to GPS tracking, a relatively new issue triggered by the widespread adoption of smartphones that help users navigate from place to place.

Many states and local courts have been left to come up with their own requirements for when a warrant is required to track someone's location, leading to an array of conflicting policies that create a headache for those tracking suspects of victims across state lines.

In May, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., asked the Justice Department how many requests for location information it had filed with cellphone carriers, and what legal standard applies when making such requests. The department said it didn't keep a running tally and couldn't offer numbers, but that in regular criminal investigations, a court order is used to compel carriers to provide the information.

"This information is critical to such investigations into a wide variety of offenses, including murder, bank robbery, gang activity, fraud, sexual exploitation of children and kidnapping," wrote Acting Assistant Attorney General Judith Appelbaum.

Franken said he was troubled by magnitude of the requests revealed Monday in Markey's reports, which were first reported by The New York Times. He said it's unacceptable that the Justice Department isn't tracking its own requests.

"The department has a lot of questions to answer, and it's clear we must do more to strike the right balance between the needs of law enforcement and privacy," Franken.

Those seeking clarification for what is in or out of bounds looked hopefully in January to the U.S. Supreme Court, which took up the GPS issue when it ruled that law enforcement cannot attach GPS tracking devices to someone's vehicle without a warrant. But the ruling was narrow and didn't deal specifically with cellphones already in someone's possession that happen to have GPS capabilities.

Bipartisan bills to address the issue were introduced in the House and Senate a year ago but never moved out of committees. The Digital Due Process Coalition, an assortment of groups including cellphone carriers and civil liberties advocates, wants the Electronic Communications Privacy Act amended to deal with it. That law was enacted in 1986, long before cellphones became a basic accessory.

"We don't know the standard that is used for the gathering, handling or disposal of information about innocent Americans," Markey said in an interview. "We need a Fourth Amendment for the 21st century. Technologies change."


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Police requesting Americans' cellphone data at staggering rate

This story from the LA Times has a few things that the previous story from the Arizona Republic didn't say.


Police requesting Americans' cellphone data at staggering rate

By Matt Pearce

July 9, 2012, 3:39 p.m.

Police are monitoring Americans’ cellphone use at a staggering rate, according to new information released in a congressional inquiry.

In letters released by Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), cellphone companies described seeing a huge uptick in requests from law enforcement agencies, with 1.3 million federal, state and local requests for phone records in 2011 alone.

“We cannot allow privacy protections to be swept aside with the sweeping nature of these information requests, especially for innocent consumers,” Markey said in a statement Monday. “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.”

The data obtained by law enforcement in some requests included location information, text messages and “cell tower dumps” that include any calls made through a tower for a certain period of time. The carriers say the information is given away in response to warrants or emergencies where someone is in “imminent” danger.

“There is no comprehensive reporting of these information requests anywhere,” Markey’s office said in a statement. “This is the first ever accounting of this.”

According to a May 29 letter, AT&T said it responds to roughly 230 emergency requests a day for kidnappings, missing persons and attempted suicides and similar incidents, with 100 full-time workers responding to requests 24 hours a day.

AT&T said it had responded to 131,400 criminal subpoenas in 2011, up from 63,100 in 2007.

Verizon Wireless, in a less detailed response, gave a similar figure to AT&T for criminal subpoena requests in 2011. Such subpoenas grant law enforcement access to records similar to those that appear on a phone bill.

T-Mobile said it would not release data on how many requests it receives but said “the number of requests has risen dramatically in the last decade with an annual increase of approximately 12-16%.” The company also said it had received two inappropriate requests for information over the past three years and had referred the cases to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Sprint estimated it had received 500,000 subpoenas in 2011 -- the most of all the phone companies, although it is only the third-largest carrier -- but noted that the figure is not representative of how many people were getting caught up in police requests. “Each subpoena typically requested subscriber information on multiple subscribers,” the company said.

Sprint also asked that Congress clarify the law on the disclosure of location information, citing “contradictory” legal standards.

The growth of cellphone use, private computing and social-media use in recent years has greatly expanded the wealth of information available to law enforcement agencies in investigations, a development in which police investigative abilities have expanded faster than the public has been able to keep track of the extent to which it’s being watched.

Last week, Twitter made a similar announcement on its website regarding police surveillance requests, reporting that government requests for user data in the first six months of 2012 had already surpassed the number of requests in all of 2011.

The phone carriers are governed by the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which limits subpoena requests to basic subscriber information and requires warrants or court orders to grant access to access the content of text messages. Wiretaps require court orders with probable cause.

The new information released by Markey provoked a slightly surprised response from communications experts and privacy advocates.

“The numbers don’t lie: location tracking is out of control,” Chris Calabrese, legislative counsel for the ACLU, noted in an analysis of the new data.

Over at the libertarian Cato Institute, Julian Sanchez spotted a discrepancy between the number of wiretaps reported by Sprint over the past five years -- 52,029 -- and the numbers that the government itself has been keeping, which only total 24,270. That suggests either Sprint’s data is wrong or that the government isn’t counting or disclosing all of its wiretaps.

“The disconnect between the official figures and what’s suggested by Sprint’s response is profound,” Sanchez wrote. “Congress has a responsibility to keep probing until we understand why.”


Papers Please