More Than a Million Police Requests for Cellphone Customer Data in 2011
Idris Elba as gangster and aspiring businessman Stringer Bell in HBO's series 'The Wire.'
American law-enforcement and emergency-response agencies asked cellular carriers for customer data more than a million times in 2011, according to letters released yesterday (July 9) by Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass.
"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 press 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."
After reading a New York Times article in April entitled "Police Are Using Phone Tracking as a Routine Tool," Markey sent nearly identical letters to nine U.S. cellular carriers asking them for details on how many law-enforcement surveillance requests they received, and what their normal methods and rates of compliance with the requests were.
Requests for customer data came from federal, state, county and municipal law-enforcement agencies, and also from 911 call centers and emergency responders working with them.
A large part of the requests, especially those linked to a phone's physical location, were deemed to be an "emergency" involving imminent threat of death or injury, and hence did not require warrants or subpoenas.
All nine carriers — AT&T, C Spire Wireless, Cricket, MetroPCS, Sprint, T-Mobile, TracFone Wireless, U.S. Cellular and Verizon Wireless — responded, but with varying amounts of information.
Sprint leads in one market segment
Sprint, which also runs the pay-as-you-go wireless carriers Boost Mobile and Virgin Mobile, reported by far the largest numbers of requests in 2011, with "approximately 500,000 subpoenas from law enforcement." The company's letter appears to include emergency requests in that number.
AT&T and Verizon Wireless reported 261,000 and 260,000 requests respectively in 2011, with each company saying that approximately half of received requests involved criminal subpoenas.
"Generally speaking," noted the Verizon Wireless letter, "law enforcement can only seek subscriber or call detail records (the type on information on a phone bill) through a subpoena."
AT&T said that it had rejected 965 requests in 2011, but kept records only on the number of rejected surveillance orders.
"Law enforcement may attempt to obtain information using a subpoena when a court order is required — such a request would be rejected," said the company's letter. "A request may also be rejected because it is defective in form — i.e., the order does not contain a signature, fails to include the subject of the request, includes a number or name that does not match AT&T's records, etc."
T-Mobile, the smallest of the Big Four wireless carriers, refused to give specific numbers, but, like AT&T and Verizon Wireless, said that about half of all requests were subpoenas.
"While T-Mobile does not disclose the number of requests we receive from law enforcement annually," its letter said, "the number of requests has risen dramatically in the last decade with an annual increase of approximately 12-16 percent."
AT&T's number of requests also grew sharply over the past five years, with the number of subpoenas doubling from 63,100 in 2007 to 131,400 in 2011, and the number of "exigent requests" for emergency responders nearly tripling, from 23,200 to 65,500.
The rate of growth far outpaced the growth of AT&T's subscriber base, which the company's letter said went from 70 million in 2007 to 103 million in 2012.
"AT&T responds to approximately 230 emergency requests (also referred to as 'exigent requests') per day, including calls from more than 8,300 Public Safety Answering Point 911 centers (PSAPs) around the country and from law enforcement agencies working on kidnappings, missing persons, attempted suicides and similar emergencies," the letter said.
The other five carriers had much smaller numbers. C Spire, a regional carrier based in Mississippi, reported 12,500 requests in 2011, while Cricket, based in San Diego, had 42,500. Chicago-based U.S. Cellular had 19,000.
MetroPCS, the largest independent pay-as-you-go carrier, wouldn't disclose how many requests it had gotten, saying only that "from January 2006 through May 2012" it had received "an average of fewer than 12,000 per month."
(Markey's staff may have added the top range of that estimate to the other carriers' disclosed numbers to arrive at a rounded-up total of 1.3 million law-enforcement requests in 2011. Without the ultimately meaningless MetroPCS figures, the total of all disclosed numbers comes to just under 1.1 million.)
Stringer Bell was right
As for TracFone, the biggest seller of untraceable "burner" pre-paid phones popularized by fictional drug dealers such as on HBO's TV series "The Wire," the company explained that it leases its wireless time from other carriers and hence has no access to its customers' personal details or location.
"TracFone cannot trace calls or text messages on a real-time basis or facilitate full-scale wire-tapping," the company said in its letter.