Congressional inquiry reveals law enforcement requested subscriber information 1.3M times

Carriers have reported for the first time the number of instances they’ve been asked to provide some form of subscriber information to law enforcement officials. Nine carriers in the U.S., including Sprint, AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile, released information in response to a Congressional inquiry, and revealed that they responded to a whopping 1.3 million requests for information in the past year. AT&T alone receives approximately 700 requests per day, with about 230 (33%) regarded as emergencies that do not require the normal court orders and subpoena.

The carriers also released historical information which suggests a strong uptick in the number of times information was requested in 2011 compared to previous years. Requests were up approximately 30% on AT&T in 2011 from 2010, and as more people use smartphones to organize their lives, we expect that this number will increase fairly consistently over the next several years.

Of course, not all of these requests for information are legitimate; carriers frequently deny requests that they view as legally questionable or unjustified, with at least one of the nine carriers reportedly sending questionable inquiries to the F.B.I. for review. These included, but were not limited to, instances in which the carrier deemed an emergency was not really present or when law enforcement agencies failed to get the required court subpoena.

Though there were instances in which law enforcement requested information it didn’t actually need, there is a fine balance between privacy concerns and law enforcement needing quick data from carriers to help them solve crimes. There’s no way for the requests to be fully justified 100% of the time, as law enforcement relies on officers sometimes having more information than they actually need to paint a full picture of a crime. Sure, they can get better at ensuring the process is followed, but compliance is never going to be 100%, especially when one considers the time-sensitive nature of police work.

Congressional officials were surprised by the findings in the report, including the ones who requested the information from carriers in the first place. Representative Edward J. Markey (D – Mass.) was one of the individuals who requested the reports, and stated that he “never expected it to be this massive,” referring to the 1.3 million total requests for information in 2011, and that amid worries that “digital dragnets” threatened to violate the privacy of mobile customers, “there’s a real danger [that] we’ve already crossed the line.”

Others in the community agree that the line may have been crossed, with an ACLU. investigation finding that carriers routinely turned over information without proper court orders.  The ACLU surveyed 200 law enforcement agencies nationwide and found that many local and state police agencies successfully gathered cell records including GPS location without the proper authority. ACLU lawyer Chris Calabrese suggests that one way to ensure compliance is to hold carriers and law enforcement agencies to consistent standards and practices, which Calabrese feels will balance individual privacy with law enforcement’s need to solve crimes.

[via The New York Times]

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