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

Human Rights

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.

* * *

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).

-- 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.")

* * *

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.

Most disturbing, the ACLU found that most agencies that engaged in cell-phone tracking did not obtain a warrant, subpoena or other court order. Worse still, it found that no common, nation-wide standard regarding tracking was in place or acknowledged by these different law enforcement groups. To put in ACLU-speak, "the legal standards used vary widely."

This points to a compelling difference in one of the key findings in the information gathered by Rep. Markey and the ACLU. Where each and every wireless company replying to the congressional inquiry swore on a stack of bibles that it fulfilled law enforcement requests based on one of two criteria: (i) did it involve an “exigent” circumstance (a 9-1-1 inquiry)? or (ii) did the company receive a valid warrant, etc.? All requests were fulfilled based on these terms.

There is a peculiar difference between what the cellphone companies “formally” report (i.e., in a legal document) and what police agencies “informally” admit (i.e., in a nonbinding questionnaire). It is an interesting grey area. The difference between the claims – i.e., carriers met legal requirements vs. agencies rarely use warrants – is, in all likelihood, the shared fiction that keeps the whole system of deceit functioning.

The ACLU says, “It is time for Americans to take back their privacy.” Why is this issue not being addressed during the presidential campaign? Surely, it is something that could unite both the far left and the far right, for is not the loss of personal privacy an issue for all those opposed to “big government”? In all likelihood, the issue will be avoided as both Obama and Romney share a common belief in big government when it comes to the subversion of privacy rights. 

The great irony of 21st-century America is that as corporations gain more personhood, citizens are loosing theirs. Rep. Markey, dig deeper: let's see how far we’ve come in fashioning the new police information state.

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