Verizon faces steady stream of requests for customer data

Even though it's received nearly 150,000 government data requests so far this year, Verizon says the overall percent of its customers affected remains small.

Don Reisinger
CNET contributor Don Reisinger is a technology columnist who has covered everything from HDTVs to computers to Flowbee Haircut Systems. Besides his work with CNET, Don's work has been featured in a variety of other publications including PC World and a host of Ziff-Davis publications.
Don Reisinger
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Verizon Wireless shared some insightful data into law enforcement requests on customer information. Verizon Wireless

Verizon has not seen much of a slowdown on requests for its customer data across the US, according to the wireless carrier's Transparency Report for the First Half of 2015.

In total, Verizon received 149,810 requests on customer information in the US during the first half of the year, according to the report released Monday, up from 148,903 in the first half of 2014. Subpoenas from law enforcement in the US on user data topped the list, exceeding 69,500. Court orders including wiretaps and trap-and-trace -- which provide real-time access to a person's phone activities -- stood at 37,230 during the period. Emergency requests from law enforcement for quick access to user phone data jumped from 24,257 in the first half of 2014 to nearly 28,000 in first half of 2015.

Transparency reports have become the standard in the tech industry, as civil liberties groups, shareholder and consumer advocates have pressured companies to be more open about when they disclose customer information. Companies spanning several different areas of technology -- including Google, Microsoft, Twitter and others -- provide data on the number of requests they receive from law enforcement officials. AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint all also provide transparency reports.

The vast majority of requests on data come in connection with law enforcement activities and typically do not involve business customers. Instead, most of the requests focus on individuals that may or may not be tied to an ongoing investigation into a crime. Like others, Verizon also receives data requests for civil cases, though the company noted that they represent a fraction of the total requests it sees.

In certain cases, actually complying with data requests ultimately rests with the companies. While valid subpoenas require that Verizon or any other company that has had data requested comply, certain law enforcement requests may be rebuffed. According to Verizon, it rejected information requests on about 3 percent of the demands it received. In those cases, it provided no user data to the requesting party.

"While we have a legal obligation to provide customer information to law enforcement in response to these lawful demands, protecting our customers' privacy remains a bedrock commitment at Verizon and we take seriously our duty to provide such information only when authorized by law," Verizon said in a statement on Monday. "To that end, we continue to carefully review each demand we receive and, where appropriate, we require law enforcement agencies to narrow the scope of their demands or correct errors in those demands before we produce some or all of the information sought."

Critics have long argued that transparency reports are only as useful as the US government allows. While companies are allowed to provide the exact numbers of requests for data it receives from law enforcement officials, national security related requests area a different story. The US government only allows companies to provide ranges for the number of requests they receive related to National Security Letters and Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) orders. On FISA requests, the US governments requires a six-month delay before statistics can be shared with the public.

As a result, Verizon's transparency report offers little to no insight into the national security requests it received: The company was only allowed to announce that it received between zero and 999 National Security Letters asking for names associated with telephone numbers during the first half of this year.

Verizon's Transparency Report comes just two weeks after T-Mobile revealed that received nearly 351,940 government requests for data in 2014, the most out of any of the four national wireless carriers. T-Mobile's requests were up 11 percent compared to 2013. Verizon's total requests in 2014 exceeded 280,000, according to the report on Monday. The company, which is closing in on 110 million subscribers, appears to be on pace to hit that figure again this year.

"Although we continue to receive large numbers of demands, the overall percent of our customers affected remains very small," Verizon said.