Alan Moore’s phrase “Who watches the Watchmen?” has never rung so true after the new report on cell phone data requests.
Representative Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat requested cell phone data reports from nine cellular carriers, including AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon, and the information he got in return was astounding. At least 1.3 million cell phone data requests were granted to law enforcement in 2011 (some warrantless)—although the number is probably much higher. According to Markey’s website, the “number does not include T-Mobile because the company did not provide this information in its response.”
Markey contrasted the the 1.3 million requests granted in 2011 with the 3,000 granted in 2010. That’s an incredibly high jump, demonstrating a complete willingness to hand over data to the government on the part of carriers, with, as Markey’s website notes, “little judicial oversight and no consumer knowledge.”
Requests also include “cell tower dump,” in which carriers provide all cell phone user numbers that “connect with a tower during a discreet period of time.” According to Markey, “in many cases, this includes information on innocent people, as cell phone tower dumps include all the calls made from a tower during a period of time.” It is through these dumps that the figure escalates beyond 1.3 million users.
Though carriers claim that most of the data requests are carried out with warrants, this conflicts with an ACLU report of over 200 police departments that responded to 380 ACLU affiliate public records requests in August 2011. “While virtually all of the over 200 police departments that responded to our request said they track cell phones, only a tiny minority reported consistently obtaining a warrant and demonstrating probable cause to do so,” wrote the ACLU.
Naturally, there must be a lot of requests related to the War on Terror? Wrong. Though the carriers did not get into the statistics of the type of requests filed, Sprint, for instance, gilded the lily by stating that “on balance, it is in the interest of our customers and the general public who may be at risk to comply with emergency requests, particularly since they often involve very serious life-threatening situations such as kidnapping, child abduction and carjacking.”
To Sprint’s credit, they did emphasize that the Supreme Court, in the case United States v. Jones, “specifically left open the question of whether tracking the location of a mobile device might be subject to” a warrant.
“We cannot allow privacy protections to be swept aside with the sweeping nature of these information requests, especially for innocent consumers,” said Rep. Markey, senior member of the Energy and Commerce Committee and co-Chair of the Congressional Bi-Partisan Privacy Caucus.“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.”