Mobile Operators Responded To An Astounding 1.3 Million Requests For Subscriber Info

from the you-have-no-privacy dept

We've talked for a while about just how often law enforcement seeks information from mobile operators -- often without getting any actual warrant -- knowing that it was astounding. But after an article from a few months ago in the NY Times noting that it was both routine and a big business for mobile operators, who charge law enforcement for each request, Rep. Ed Markey asked all of the major mobile operators just how often they get requests from law enforcement for subscriber info, and discovered that last year they responded to an astounding 1.3 million requests for subscriber info -- including location info, text messages and other data. And, apparently, this number likely undercounts the true size, because it notes that there was "incomplete record-keeping" in some cases. Oh yeah, and also, this just requests, not individuals -- a single request might include multiple people whose information was being sought. So, an awful lot of people were spied on this way.

Not surprisingly, the number of requests continues to rise drastically, with AT&T admitting that it had seen a tripling in requests in the last five years. As the report notes:
AT&T alone now responds to an average of more than 700 requests a day, with about 230 of them regarded as emergencies that do not require the normal court orders and subpoena.... Sprint, which did not break down its figures in as much detail as other carriers, led all companies last year in reporting what amounted to at least 1,500 data requests on average a day.
This isn't a huge surprise, but does raise significant questions about how reasonable these information trawling operations are. Do we honestly believe that law enforcement needed all of that info? This seems like a case where, of course, if the info is easy to get, law enforcement wants it. But is that reasonable?

And, telcos have little incentive to stand up for the rights of their users. They actually make money from these kinds of requests:
AT&T, for one, said it collected $8.3 million last year compared with $2.8 million in 2007, and other carriers reported similar increases in billings.
For a company that large, this isn't a major cash cow, but it is something. It's unclear how carefully the telcos review the request. At least one (smaller) telco, C Spire Wireless, reported that it had rejected about 15% of the requests, but most of the other operators didn't provide any info on rejections (and it makes you wonder if they ever rejected any requests at all).

None of this is surprising. When such a tool is available, it's almost impossible for it not to be abused. It's just too easy for law enforcement to snoop on anyone's location or text messages, and they can't resist doing so. It seems like telcos (1) could be a lot more transparent about this. While Google and Twitter both have voluntarily opened up to provide data on law enforcement requests, the only reason this info became public from the mobile operators was because of Markey's request. On top of that, it seems that the rules concerning an individual's privacy rights should also be a lot clearer, to give the telcos more ammo to push back against bogus requests.
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Filed Under: ed markey, law enforcement, location data
Companies: at&t, c spire wireless, sprint


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  1. identicon
    Michael, 9 Jul 2012 @ 7:37am

    Surely there aren't 1.3+ million criminals roaming around on US soil, so why do they requrest access to so much "private" user info? What "laws" are being violated? How many of these requests for subscriber info resulted in legitimate arrests for real-world crimes? And why are the telcos so willfully complicit in handing over users' sensitive data?

    All this serves to prove is that your privacy may be violated at any time by the telcos if law enforcement waves enough cash in front of their noses. Big brother is indeed watching you ...and selling your private info to the highest bidder. Owning a mobile phone seems like a dangerous thing to do.

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