Carriers got 1M gov't, police requests for data in 2012

Requests for customer mobile phone data from federal, state, and local authorities topped 1 million, says a US senator. But no carrier said whether it had received requests under the Patriot Act.

Lance Whitney Contributing Writer
Lance Whitney is a freelance technology writer and trainer and a former IT professional. He's written for Time, CNET, PCMag, and several other publications. He's the author of two tech books--one on Windows and another on LinkedIn.
Lance Whitney
3 min read
Declan McCullagh/CNET

Requests for customer mobile phone data from federal, state, and local authorities topped 1 million last year, according to Senator Edward Markey.

The results were revealed Monday by the senator's office, which published letters received from the major US carriers in response to questions from Markey. The senator's questions touched on such topics as:

  • How many total requests did your company receive from law enforcement to provide information about your customers' phone usage?
  • How long does your company retain records for law enforcement?
  • How many of the requests did your company fulfill, and how many did it deny?
  • In 2012, did your company receive money or other forms of compensation in exchange for providing information to law enforcement?
  • How many requests did your company receive under Section 315 of the Patriot Act?

The number of requests made to Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile individually weren't far from each other. Verizon said it got about 270,000 requests, AT&T received 297,500, and T-Mobile got 297,350. Sprint Nextel said it wouldn't be able to give specific numbers in a letter but offered to meet with the senator and his staff in person.

Collectively, though, all the requests received by those carriers added up to more than 1 million.

Most of the carriers, including Cricket Communications and C Spire managed a response to the majority of the questions. But each was mum when it came to requests allowed under the Patriot Act.

A typical response was one that came from T-Mobile US (TMUS):

TMUS understands that the Department of Justice considers whether or not a provider receives any request under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to be classified, as well as the total number of such requests, if any. Accordingly, TMUS can neither confirm nor deny that it receives such requests.

Of course, the carriers aren't the culprits here. Rather, It's the US government that has muzzled them in their attempt to disclose any information about such requests. The carriers and other tech companies have asked the feds for the freedom to reveal more information about requests for their customers' phone data. But for now their hands, and tongues, are tied.

Some companies also said they had provided data without a warrant, according to Markey's office. AT&T said it supplies texts and voicemails older than 180 days without a subpoena. Verizon requires a standard warrant for text messages but not necessarily voicemails. T-Mobile requires a warrant for both texts and voicemails.

As a result of the responses, Markey said, he plans to introduce a bill that would curb certain bulk data requests; require disclosures from law enforcement on the nature and number of requests; and ask the Federal Communications Commission to limit how long carriers can hang onto the personal information of their mobile subscribers.

"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. "We need a Fourth Amendment for the 21st century. Disclosure of personal information from wireless devices raises significant legal and privacy concerns, particularly for innocent consumers."