Wow. Sometimes one word says it all. The New York Times reports that in response to letters from Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA) and Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX), mobile phone providers disclosed that they received approximately 1.3 million law enforcement requests for customer records last year alone. What an extraordinary number: more than a million accounts subject to at least some level of law enforcement investigation just in 2011. As we have discussed elsewhere, beyond what is reported by carriers in these letters, there is absolutely no reporting or tracking regarding how these numbers are handled.
Even more amazing, as you dig into the article and read the underlying letters it becomes clear that this is actually a vast undercount of the number of Americans who have been affected by this tracking. Sprint disclosed that it received approximately 500,000 subpoenas in 2011 (a subpoena is a written request for information from law enforcement that isn’t reviewed by a judge) and that “each subpoena typically requested subscriber information on multiple subscribers.” In addition, several carriers disclosed that they sometimes provide all the information from a particular cell tower or particular area. Metro PCS for example charges:
$50 for Cell Tower Dump per tower for a 2 hour period
$100 for an Area Dump (if you know the location but do not know the cell towers that affect the area) for a maximum of 2 cell towers for a 2 hour period per cell tower search
Everyone whose phone has been used by a particular cell tower over a particular time period—likely hundreds or thousands of people—could have their data examined by investigators. And these dragnet data requests are on the rise. Verizon estimates that over the last 5 years it has seen an average increase of 15% annually, and T-Mobile reported increases of approximately 12%-16%. This has also led to at least some possible abuse; T-Mobile disclosed that in the last three years it has referred two inappropriate law enforcement requests to the FBI.