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Markey: Law Enforcement Collecting Information on Millions of Americans from Mobile Phone Carriers

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Jul. 9, 2012 -- Giselle

Congressman releases first-ever accounting of responses from wireless carriers that indicate sweeping personal data requests from law enforcement agencies

WASHINGTON, D.C. – In the first-ever accounting of its kind, Congressman Edward J. Markey (D-Mass) has found that in 2011, federal, state and local law enforcement agencies made more than 1.3 million requests of wireless carriers for the cell phone records of consumers, and that number is increasing every year. Last month, Rep. Markey queried nine mobile wireless carriers about their policies and practices for sharing their customers’ mobile phone information with law enforcement agencies after a report in the New York Times reported that law enforcement was routinely requesting consumers cell phone records, sometimes with little judicial oversight and no consumer knowledge. The responses received by Rep. Markey were startling in the volume and scope of requests made by law enforcement, including requests for “cell tower dumps” in which carriers provide all the phones numbers of cell users that connect with a tower during a discreet period of time, including information on innocent people. According to the carriers, all requests were made pursuant to a legal warrant or granted due to an emergency situation in which an individual was in imminent danger.

“We cannot allow privacy protections to be swept aside with the sweeping nature of these information requests, especially for innocent consumers,” said Rep. Markey, senior member of the Energy and Commerce Committee and co-Chair of the Congressional Bi-Partisan Privacy Caucus. “Law enforcement agencies are looking for a needle, but what are they doing with the haystack? We need to know how law enforcement differentiates between records of innocent people, and those that are subjects of investigation, as well as how it handles, administers, and disposes of this information.”

A link to the responses from the carriers can be found HERE.

Other findings from the responses to Rep. Markey include:

  • There were approximately 1.3 million federal, state, and local law enforcement requests for cell phone records to wireless carriers in 2011 (This number does not include T-Mobile because the company did not provide this information in its response.).
    • As a point of comparison in 2010, there were approximately 3,000 wiretaps issued nationwide.
  • Verizon reported that there has been an annual increase of law enforcement requests of 15 percent, and T-Mobile reported and increase of 12-16 percent.
  • Information shared with law enforcement includes data such as geolocation information, content of text messages, wiretaps, among others.    
  • Requests also include “cell tower dumps” in which carriers provide all the phones numbers of cell users that connect with a tower during a discreet period of time. 
    • In many cases, this includes information on innocent people, as cell phone tower dumps include all the calls made from a tower during a period of time.
  • There is no comprehensive reporting of these information requests anywhere – this is the first ever accounting of this.

Rep. Markey sent letters to U.S. Cellular, Sprint Nextel, T-Mobile USA Inc., Leap Wireless Inc./ Cricket Communications, Inc., MetroPCS, Verizon Communications Inc., AT&T, C Spire Wireless, and TracFone Wireless.

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