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What Secrets Is Your Cell Phone Company Telling the Government About You?

Over 1.3 million Americans have been electronically "searched and frisked."

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-- Sprint Nextel: The company reports that it received 325,982 requests over the last five years, although it notes that a single request might contain multiple requests so it estimates that it's received some 500,000 actual requests; this averaged about 1,500 data requests per day; it has a team of 36 analysts who receive and review court orders for wiretaps and trace devices and an additional 175 analysts to respond to court orders for subscriber information; it did not provide total fees charged but did supply a rate sheet detailing fees for requests (e.g., $300 for an account takeover).

-- T-Mobile (a unit of Deutsche Telekom AG): It did not provide a detail accounting of requests, but said it has seen a 12 percent to 16 percent increase each year; it claimed to have a dedicated "law enforcement relations" team working on meeting these requests; it did not provide information as to either the fees it charges to fulfill the requests or how much it charged in 2011.

-- TracFone Wireless (a unit of Mexico's American Movil): The company is a reselling of wireless services from AT&T, T-Mobile and Verizon; thus, it does not have access to “the underlying carrier network” of tractable information; it does maintain 20 call-center representatives to meet emergency and legal requests; it does not charge a fee or receive payment for fulfill law enforcement requests.

-- U.S. Cellular: The company details a total of 103,655 request between 2007 and 2011; it maintains a staff of 5 to process the requests, along with in-house and outside counsel; in 2011, it received $460,692 in request processing fees.

-- Verizon (a joint venture between Verizon and Vodafone): The company reports that in 2011, it received a total of 260,000 requests and, over the preceding five years there has been an annual increase of law enforcement requests of 15 percent; it notes that it has approximately 70 employees handling such requests, “24 hours a day, seven days a week”; it did not provide total fees charged for fulfilling requests but did specify select charges (e.g., $775 for wiretap, $50 for stored text message and $470 for a  “trap and trace” order).

The information Rep. Markey garnered provides an invaluable insight into how law enforcement entities are using, if not abusing, private communications services. About 1.3 million Americans were electronically “searched and frisked,” a dubious policing practice over-enforced in New York.

(For more on telecom corporations cooperation with law enforcement authorities, see " How the Telecoms See Out Your Privacy.")

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The congressional filings provided by Rep. Markey add to the growing body of evidence that policing, like the military, is becoming an increasingly high-tech operation. Like the U.S. military’s partnership with Boeing and Lockheed-Martin, the police-information complex is tied to AT&T and Verizon.

The integrated federal, state and local law enforcement system could not function without its corporate shadow. And, yes, this “shadow” also includes the vast network of data tracking and parsing companies, whether Google or Amazon, Visa or PayPal, Acxiom or Lexis-Nexis. High-tech policing, like the Special Forces, doesn’t give a hoot about people’s civil liberties.

In April, the ACLU announced that it had received the records from over 200 local law enforcement agencies regarding their cell phone tracking programs. In 2011, 35 ACLU affiliate groups filed over 380 public records requests with state and local law enforcement agencies concerning tracking. Its most disturbing finding confirmed Rep. Markey’s finding: “ … only a tiny minority reported consistently obtaining a warrant and demonstrating probable cause to do so.”

The ACLU found that cell-phone tracking is engaged in by an “overwhelming majority” of the 200 groups that reported. But usage varies considerably. A law enforcement entity in Raleigh, NC, reported tracking hundred of calls a year while 10 groups claimed they had never used tracking.

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