U.S. mobile phone companies responded to 1.3 million requests for subscriber information in 2011 alone
By Madison Ruppert
Editor of End the Lie
According to new figures acquired from mobile phone companies by Representative Ed Markey of Massachusetts, carriers responded to a whopping 1.3 million requests for subscriber information from law enforcement.
Unfortunately this is not all that surprising in the American surveillance state where police regularly use cell phone tracking, armored surveillance vehicles, light poles and more to monitor the populace.
These requests, which all occurred last year, included a wide range of information from just text messages to pinpoint phone location data.
The documents – which come from AT&T, C Spire, Leap and Cricket, MetroPCS, Sprint, T-Mobile, TracFone, U.S. Cellular and Verizon – represent the first time these figures have been made available to the public, proving just how unbelievably widespread domestic surveillance has truly become.
Rep. Markey, co-chair of the Congressional Bi-Partisan Privacy Caucus, began the probe in an attempt to maintain what few privacy protections Americans have left.
“We cannot allow privacy protections to be swept aside with the sweeping nature of these information requests,” said Markey in a statement.
The data was made available to the public by Markey on Monday, while the New York Times received the information one day earlier.
The most disturbing part of these figures is highlighted by Wired’s Threat Level in writing about how a single request can potentially result in hundreds of people being caught in the government’s dragnet.
“Law enforcement has been asking for so-called ‘cell tower dumps’ in which carriers disclose all phone numbers that connected to a given tower during a certain period of time,” reports David Kravets.
“So, for instance, if police wanted to try to find a person who broke a store window at an Occupy protest, it could get the phone numbers and identifying data of all protestors with mobile phones in the vicinity at the time — and use that data for other purposes,” Kravets adds.
For years these same cell phone carriers have outright refused to explicitly reveal the numbers on the frequent requests on law enforcement.
Furthermore, they have been silent on the standards they set for turning over information and how often they actually grant the requests.
Quite interestingly, the carriers aren’t handing over this information for free. For instance, in 2007 AT&T charged $2.8 million for the work they did in relation to around 125,000 requests. In 2011 these numbers shot up to $8.25 million with over 260,000 requests.
Hilariously, in AT&T’s “Human Rights in Communication Policy,” they claim that they will, “generate periodic reports regarding our experience with such requests to the extent permitted by the law,” when in fact they haven’t done anything of the sort until Congress pushed them to.
Verizon’s numbers were quite similar to those provided by AT&T, although their records were not nearly as clear as AT&T’s. Verizon received around 260,000 requests with an annual growth rate of around 15 percent.
One of the most strange aspects of the obtained records was the massive number of requests received by American’s third largest carrier, Sprint.
Sprint reported that they received around 500,000 requests, meaning that Sprint alone received almost as many requests as the top two largest carriers combined.
T-Mobile, on the other hand, refused to report the number of requests they received and merely said that the number of requests have grown at around 16 percent per year over the past decade.
Law enforcement agencies obtain this information from carriers in a variety of ways. They can request data by claiming there is an imminent threat of serious injury, death, or another police emergency, subpoenas and various court orders.
Interestingly, the companies did not say exactly how many times they granted requests for records based on probable cause warrants because, as Threat Level rightly pointed out, “much of Americans’ mobile-phone data is not protected by the Fourth Amendment.”
“AT&T does not respond to law enforcement without receipt of appropriate legal process,” Timothy McKone, an AT&T vice president, wrote Markey as part of the congressional inquiry. “When the law requires a warrant for disclosure of customer usage information, AT&T requires that a warrant be required — as is also the case for court orders, subpoenas or any other form of legal process.”
McKone added that AT&T employees over 100 people full time and “operates on a 24/7 basis for the purpose of meeting law enforcement demands,” clearly indicating that the sheer number of requests demands quite a sizeable response on the company’s part.
Unfortunately, this is far from the only surveillance method – as mentioned above – and all of the various ways to monitor the public continue to grow.
Threat Level points to the Justice Department’s Internet and telecommunications surveillance method known as “pen register” and “trap-and-trace capturing.”
This method is especially troubling because all law enforcement has to do is claim that the information is relevant to an investigation. By only having to claim that the information is relevant to an investigation, there need not be any hint that the target is actually involved in committing a crime.
What might be most disturbing about this is the fact that the Department of Justice simply stopped reporting figures on their use of pen registers and trap-and-trace since 2009.
Interestingly, Sprint seems to be unclear on what exactly is required in terms of legal standards.
“Given the importance of this issue, the competing and at times contradictory legal standards, Sprint believes Congress should clarify the legal requirements for disclosure of all types of location information to law enforcement personnel,” wrote Voyan McCann, a Sprint vice president, to Markey.
It seems as though law enforcement are really getting used to being able to request this type of information and thus are taking advantage of it quite a bit. Personally, I think it occurs far too often and is yet another instance of the United States quickly becoming an Orwellian nightmare right before our eyes.
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