Cell Phone Carriers Responded To 1.3 Million Requests For Subscriber Info From Law Enforcement Last Year

For the first time ever, cellphone carriers are publicly reporting just how many demands for subscriber information they responded to from law enforcement agencies. Last year they had 1.3 million requests for info on text messages, caller locations and other information related to investigations.

The reports are being made public as the result of a Congressional inquiry and show a major uptick in cellphone surveillance in the last five years. Police emergencies, court orders, subpoenas and other requests have companies turning over records thousands of times a day, reports the New York Times.

Not all requests were accepted, if the company receiving it found it to be legally questionable or unjustified. One even referred such requests to the FBI. The cell companies made it clear that across the board on all levels of government, surveillance has been widened. That has some concerned  as to whether or not there are enough legal safeguards in place to balance the need for quick data to uphold the law and conduct a successful investigation, against the privacy rights of consumers.

For example, AT&T responds to an average of more than 700 requests a day and around 230 of those are labeled as emergencies that don’t require any kind of court order or subpoena. That’s almost triple what AT&T received in 2007, it said. Sprint led all the companies, reporting around 1,500 data requests per day on average.

It costs money to turn over information related to surveillance operations, and luckily for the companies involved, federal law allows them to be reimbursed for “reasonable” expenses incurred during that process. However some cell phone carriers complained that they weren’t getting paid on submitted invoices.

The good news? Your cell phone conversations are less likely to be heard, as wiretap requests declined 14% last year.

More Demands on Cell Carriers in Surveillance [New York Times]


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  1. Captain Spock says:

    I wonder why Sprint leads the pack, do a larger percentage of shady people use sprint?

    • Beef Supreme says:

      I don’t know, but you’d expect the largest carriers (Verizon, ATT) to have more requests just based on customer volume.

    • kcvaliant says:

      Boost mobile based out of an area code which forbids most requests except for court order if I remember correctly.

      Basically most crooks use prepaid, sprint has a lot of em.

      • incident_man says:

        Sprint is the easiest of the postpaid carriers to get service with if you have marginal credit; I used to work there. A person would have to have a serious dinger on their credit report in order to have a deposit necessary to start service. More than half of the customers who I helped while there were carrying past-due balances and not paying even the full past-due balance when making their payments. Then their accounts would go into suspension and they’d make the bare minimum payment to turn service back on.

        Upper management used to berate us for not making our sales numbers at the store and district level; with more than half of your customer base unable to keep their bill current, is there any wonder why sales didn’t meet corporate expectations?

        I’m sooooo glad I no longer work there. Their coverage sucks, their corporate culture sucks, and the work environment sucks.

    • Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:

      Ha! I thought I’d be the only one to think that. I also wonder if you can casually link number of phone record requests to the percentage of people using a network that are law-violators.

  2. Coffee says:

    The good news is that 1.29 million of the requests were by law enforcement officers trying to get the text logs for their daughters, daughters’ boyfriends, and wives.

    • Blueskylaw says:

      Great minds think alike!!!

      • Coffee says:

        Awww…now I feel all awkward about the snarky comment I made below. If I could time travel, I would go back in time and kill Hitler, then tell myself not to be so snarky.

        • Blueskylaw says:

          Or you could just wait to see what I post then make your snarky comments.

          Besides, if you killed Hitler, the war would have dragged on even
          longer since sane people would have then taken over the reigns.

  3. Blueskylaw says:

    If Congress curtails these requests, how will government agents
    then know who their ex-wives are dating and what they are doing – errr,
    I actually meant to say, how will we fight the terrorists and bad guys?

  4. Coffee says:

    Getting serious for a moment, it appears that over 30% of the requests are emergencies that bypass the need for a court order or subpoena. I really, really hope that that type of request is made if someone’s life is in physical danger. Otherwise, the “emergency” tag seems like a pretty easy/lazy way to circumvent due process.

    • Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:

      And then who is actually vetting these “emergency” requests, if using this tag circumvents the court process.

      • Coffee says:

        I would also worry about this kind of thing if I were a prosecuting attorney – sleazy detective uses “emergency” request to circumvent a warrant –> text is used to find subsequent evidence –> all subsequent evidence deriving therefrom is rendered inadmissible because of the initial bad text.

        • doctor_cos wants you to remain calm says:

          Probably doesn’t work that way. Yeah, it’s the law and everything (fruit of the poison tree), but real life isn’t a movie or tv show.

        • Free Legal Advice! says:

          You are correct, sir! Doctor_cos, go back to the hospital. “Fruit of the Poisonous Tree” is exactly why dectectives can’t go around asking for emergency warrants all the time. In my jurisdiction, emergencies are missing or endangered kids, a credible reported threat on someone’s life, or a manhunt after a murder has been attempted or comitted. Everything else requires a warrant or subpoena.

          The data is usually used to prove that a phone conversation did take place. Although, we have also used cell records to show that the defendant’s phone was in the area where the crime was committed, even though he claims to be across the state.

          *Appologies for for not using gender-neutral pronouns, but most criminal defendants are male.

  5. Invader Zim says:

    Maybe its easier for law enforcement to submit a request for sprint customers. I bet a lot of those requests are junk and out right violations of privacy.

  6. MIKEfrom510 says:

    I realize how it looks when you read this article….

    I work as a Police Communications Supervisor (911), for a large city, and I can say, at least three+ times a day, we have to call in to get subscriber information on cell phones. The reason for this? If we get a 9-1-1 call, and there is any sign of distress, and we are unable to obtain the caller’s name and address, we are forced to obtain subscriber information, and sometimes even have to ping the phone, so we can send an officer out to make sure the person is ok. On the ALI screen (automatic location information), we only see the address of a cell tower if it is a “Phase One”, and if it is a “Phase Two”, we can see a general area of where the caller may be.. but it is still not 100% accurate and does not give an exact address…

    A recent example: several days ago I took a call where a small girl called 911, she said “My Dad is punching my Mom and she is bleeding”. The little girl did not know her address, and later on in the phone call, the father realized she was calling 911 and took the phone away from her and turned if off. We contacted the cell carrier and obtained the address. It turns out, the father HAD in fact beat the mother so severely that she had to be hospitalized and taken to a trauma ER. The father was arrested. Had I not obtained subscriber information to find her address, she may have well died from the severity of her beating.

    Most often I have to obtain subscriber information for these sort of situations, but I have also had them for people calling to say they plan to commit suicide, or reporting a medical emergency or other such emergencies. I have obtained subscriber information and pinged cell phones to find missing children (who have a cell phone on them).

    So, while I imagine that some police detectives MAY use subscriber information requests for criminal investigation purposes, from my perspective– we obtain subscriber information for emergencies with exigent circumstances.

    Before you judge law enforcement agencies for obtaining subscriber information, you should also consider the REASONS why police agencies would need this information. At least from the perspective of a 9-1-1 dispatcher, obtaining subscriber information to send help can save lives.

    If I am prohibited from obtaining this information, it means I am limited in what I can do to send help to respond an emergency.

    I do believe there should be proper checks and balances in place for detectives/inspectors getting this information. I have heard of fraudulent requests (e.g., detectives checking in on their wives, etc.) In my 911 Center, I am very strict with these requests and all of them MUST go through me as a supervisor.

  7. 2 Replies says:

    “The good news? Your cell phone conversations are less likely to be heard, as wiretap requests declined 14% last year.”

    Not necessarily good news…
    That could just be in correlation to a >14% decrease in voice cell phone conversations.

  8. samonela says:

    Stringer Bell must be rolling around in his grave over this…