POLITICS

Cops Asked For Cell Phone Data More Than 1 Million Times Last Year

12/09/2013 03:35 pm ET | Updated Jan 25, 2014

Where you've been, whom you've talked to and even what you've been saying -- police can get it all from your cell phone company, and frequently without a warrant. The big wireless carriers received more than 1.1 million requests from law enforcement for customer data in 2012, according to letters to Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) that his office released Monday.

Markey, who sits on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, asked the major wireless carriers to detail how often they turn over data and in what circumstances they require a warrant signed by a judge before they do so.

Three carriers -- AT&T, Verizon and Sprint -- reported receiving a total of 56,400 emergency requests from law enforcement that came with not so much as a subpoena. There were more than 9,000 "tower dumps," in which cell phone companies disclosed the names of hundreds of customers near one cell tower in order to help law enforcement catch one suspect. Police are also increasing their use of Stingrays, devices that fool cell phones into thinking they are communicating with a tower in order to reveal their location.

Unlike the major Internet companies, which are taking an increasingly confrontational stance toward mass surveillance by the National Security Agency and other sources, the big cell phone carriers seem to see complying with law enforcement requests as part of their job. Google, Twitter, and other tech companies frequently release "transparency reports" detailing law enforcement's requests. The cell phone companies, by contrast, only release similar numbers when a U.S. senator asks them to.

Markey's office revealed other surprising findings from the letters about the companies' willingness to work with the government: AT&T hands over full texts and voicemails that are more than 180 days old without a warrant. T-Mobile will accept a subpoena from law enforcement agents, instead of a warrant approved by a judge, to hand over historical location data. And together, T-Mobile, Sprint and Verizon pocketed $26 million in fees, which they are legally allowed to do, to comply with cops' requests.

"Police see our mobile devices as the go-to source for information,” Christopher Calabrese, legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement Monday. "The idea that police can obtain such a rich treasure trove of data about any one of us without appropriate judicial oversight should send shivers down our spines."

The data requests, which can be made by everyone from local cops to the FBI, are facilitated by a 1986 law called the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which in many cases allows data content to be accessed on the simple say-so of law enforcement, without a warrant. Companion bills are pending in the House and Senate to reform the law. Markey is also planning a bill more narrowly targeted at safeguarding cell phone users' privacy.

"As law enforcement uses new technology to protect the public from harm, we also must protect the information of innocent Americans from misuse," Markey said in a statement released with the letters. “We need a Fourth Amendment for the 21st century."

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