Verizon Received More Than 320,000 Law Enforcement Requests In 2013

Verizon has finally gotten around to publishing a transparency report detailing the various requests for customer information made by local, state, and federal authorities during the last year. Over the course of the year, the company says it received more then 320,000 such requests including more than 1,000 queries related to national security issues.

Of course, Verizon is just as hamstrung as the rest of the telecom and Internet industry, in that it is not legally allowed to reveal exactly how many national security requests it received nor provide any specific information about the nature of those queries. Instead, it can only say that it received more than 1,000 of them and fewer than 2,000 during the 2013 calendar year.

And those are just the formal requests, as the National Security Agency isn’t big on asking for permission to collect massive amounts of customer-related information.

“The past year saw an intense focus around the world on government demands to obtain customer data,” writes Verizon in a statement about the report.

The company says it will update the report every six months with the latest available information.

While transparency reports from companies like Facebook and Microsoft have included information about how many law enforcement requests were rejected or otherwise resulted in no disclosures being made, the Verizon report does not.

Verizon says it will fight a request “If a demand is facially invalid, or if a demand seeks certain information that can only be obtained with a different form of process (for example, a subpoena, rather than a warrant, improperly is used to seek stored customer content),” and claims that “In many cases we do not produce any information at all, including because the demand seeks information we do not have.”

However, the company chose not to include specific data on rejected requests because “We did not track the percentage of demands to which we produced some or no data in 2013, but will be doing so going forward.”

While the vague national security requests get the lion’s share of attention, they are a small portion of all requests. Subpoenas make up the largest portion of law enforcement queries. According to Verizon, it received some 164,000 subpoenas last year alone.

“The subpoenas we receive are generally used by law enforcement to obtain subscriber information or the type of information that appears on a customer’s phone bill,” explains the company. “More than half of the subpoenas we receive seek only subscriber information: that is, those subpoenas typically require us to provide the name and address of a customer assigned a given phone number or IP address. Other subpoenas also ask for certain transactional information, such as phone numbers that a customer called. The types of information we can provide in response to a subpoena are limited by law. We do not release contents of communications (such as text messages or emails) or cell site location information in response to subpoenas.”

The next largest chunk of the 320,000+ requests received by Verizon in 2013 were the approximately 70,000 court orders involving customer information. These fall into two major categories.

The first is Wiretap and Pen/Trap Orders, which are the kinds of orders you see on TV shows where cops convince a judge to let them tap a phone line or trace calls in real time. Verizon received about 1,500 wiretap orders in 2013 and about 6,300 orders giving law enforcement real-time access to certain accounts.

About 89% of court orders provided to Verizon last year fall under the headline of General Orders. This is basically everything that isn’t a wiretap and often seeks the same information that you’d find in a subpoena request.

“We do not provide law enforcement any stored content (such as text messages or email) in response to a general order,” claims Verizon. For that, you’d need a warrant.

Speaking of which, there were 36,696 warrants issued for information about Verizon accounts in 2013.

“This is a higher standard than the standard for a general order,” explains Verizon. “While many warrants seek the same types of information that can also be obtained through a general order or subpoena, most warrants we received in 2013 sought stored content or location information.”

Another sizable chunk of the law enforcement requests were emergency queries related to Verizon customers who may be at risk. The company received more than 85,000 such requests in 2013, but because it doesn’t keep track of whether the requests come from actual law enforcement agencies or Public Safety Answering Points (primarily involving 9-1-1 calls from the public), it can only estimate that about 50,000 of these requests came from the authorities.

“To request data during these emergencies, a law enforcement officer must certify in writing that there was an emergency involving the danger of death or serious physical injury to a person that required disclosure without delay,” explains the company. “These emergency requests are made in response to active violent crimes, bomb threats, hostage situations, kidnappings and fugitive scenarios, often presenting life-threatening situations. In addition, many emergency requests are in search and rescue settings or when law enforcement is trying to locate a missing child or elderly person.”

You can check out the entire Verizon transparency report, including information on international requests, at transparency.verizon.com.