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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."

Photo Credit: Karl Baron via Flickr


Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) has had enough of the nation’s law enforcement establishment and its utter disregard for privacy protections. On Monday, July 9, he released the first set of findings from the House’s Bipartisan Congressional Privacy Caucus and a summary of it was published in the New York Times. "Law enforcement agencies are looking for a needle, but what are they doing  with the haystack?" he asked. 

Markey’s revelations are pretty alarming: approximately 1.3 million federal, state and local law enforcement requests for cell phone records were made to wireless carriers in 2011. As he points out on his Web site, in 2010, there were approximately 3,000 wiretaps issued nationwide. As he acknowledges, “There is no comprehensive reporting of these information requests anywhere – this is the first ever accounting of this.”

A wireless customer’s personal information provided to law enforcement entities is fairly comprehensive. It includes geo-locational or GPS data, 911 call responses, text message content, billing records, wiretaps, PING location data and what are known as cell tower “dumps” or (i.e., a carrier provides all the phones numbers of cell users that connect with a discrete tower during a discrete period of time).

The question that needs to be asked – and answered – is why has there been an such an explosive increase in law enforcement snooping on American people? Something is going on that threatens traditional civil liberties and notions of personal privacy. And this something involves not only the increasingly integrated national law enforcement establishment that includes federal, state and local agencies, but the private corporations that collect the personal data and provide it (at a fee) to these agencies. The U.S. is, step-by-step, becoming a corporate-police information state.

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Rep. Markey sent requests for information covering seven basic questions to nine of the nation’s leading wireless service providers: AT&T, C Spire Wireless, and Cricket Communications, MetroPCS, Sprint Nextel, T-Mobile, TracFone Wireless, U.S. Cellular and Verizon. Each of the companies reiterated that it fulfills law enforcement requests that either (i) due to “exigent” circumstance (e.g., a 911 inquiry) or (ii) having received a valid warrant, etc.

A review of some of what he discovered with regard to each company is an eye-opener to the state of law enforcement lawlessness.

-- AT&T: The company insists that “it does not respond to law enforcement without receipt of appropriate legal process”; nevertheless, in 2011 it responded to 267,765 requests, more than double for 2007 at 125,425; it reports rejecting approximately 15 requests a week, thus around 950 per year; the company also reports it has 100 full-time employees to review and respond to law enforcement requests; AT&T said that about 0.25 percent of its 103 million wireless subscribers (or approximately 2.6 million customers) had been subject to enforcement requests; it also reports that it 2011 it received $8.3 million for servicing law-enforcement requests.

-- C Spire Wireless: Since 2007, the company received 12,500 requests and fulfilled almost all requests; it declined or was unable to fulfill 15 percent of the requests, mostly due to the fact that the information was no longer available; it said that it had received approximately $18,000 in fees.

-- Cricket Communications: In 2011, the company received 42,500 requests, up from 24,000 it received in 2007; it subcontracts fulfillment of such requests to a third-party, Nustar; it did not provide total fees charged but did supplied a rate sheet detailing fees for requests (e.g., $64 for call detail record or $235 for wiretap per name/number).

-- MetroPCS: Between January 2006 and May 2012, it fulfilled less than 12,000 requests per month (using 10,000 request for 77 months is 770,000 requests); 16 employees are dedicated to fulfilling these requests; it did not provide total fees charged but did supply a rate sheet detailing fees for requests (e.g., $50 for call detail record or $400 for wiretap set up and $40 per day maintenance per name/number).

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