US telecoms sold 1.1 million cell records to law enforcement in 2012

Dec 9, 2013
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The major US telecoms delivered at minimum 1.1 million cell phone records to law enforcement at all levels of government in 2012. The records include voicemail and text content. The telecoms earned $26 million from the transactions. Many of the fulfilled information requests legally required no warrant, no subpoena, and no probable cause. These and other irresistible revelations come compliments of US Sen. Edward Markey, whose voluminous correspondence with the involved telecoms revealed the information. They include US Cellular, Sprint Nextel, T-Mobile USA, Leap Wireless/Cricket Communications, MetroPCS, Verizon, AT&T and C Spire Wireless.

The 1.1 million tabulated data requests cover federal, state and local law enforcement bodies. In 2011 a similar investigation by Markey found there were 1.3 million requests, but this year's figure is lower than reality because Sprint failed to provide an answer for its total share of the free data banquet. Another mitigating factor is there were at least 9,000 cell phone tower bulk data dumps in 2012 -- which would have added an estimated tens of thousands of additional de facto requests to the total, and again not all companies reported that information to the senator.

The figure covers every available kind of information request: non-911 emergency requests, real-time data, historical data, text messages, voicemails, and requests with and without a warrant or subpoena. Telecoms have wildly varying policies governing what they will and will not hand over to law enforcement and what legal bars must be cleared. They behave as they see fit. Some companies require no warrant geolocation information in many instances. AT&T asks for a warrant for real-time data but just a subpoena for historical data (even for data older than 180 days.) T-Mobile asks for just a subpoena and not a warrant for historical records.

Companies retain cell tower-based user location data for all different lengths of time. Some keep the data for six months, others for 18 months -- AT&T, for five years. Verizon needs a warrant for texts but not voicemails. T-Mobile, the stalwart privacy archangel of the bunch (by comparison) requires a warrant for both text messages and voicemails.

Markey intends to introduce legislation to change the way law enforcement and telecoms interact around customer data. His proposals include requiring law enforcement to divulge to the public exactly what they request from telecoms; halt or reduce cell tower data dumps; make law enforcement officials sign sworn statements attesting to the specific need for all emergency data requests after the fact; and put limits on how long telcos can hang on to customer data.

Most impressively, Markey's list of legislative aims includes one item that could actually enforce the 4th Amendment: "Require location tracking authorization only with a warrant when there is probable cause to believe it will uncover evidence of a crime. This is the traditional standard for police to search individual homes."

Think his proposal has traction?

SOURCE: The Register


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