Back to News & Commentary

Verizon Begins to Clear the Air With First Transparency Report

Nicole Ozer,
Technology & Civil Liberties Director, ACLU of Northern California
Share This Page
January 22, 2014

We are very pleased that following our shareholder proposal, Verizon released its first transparency report today. We applaud Verizon for finally making it clear how much information is being demanded by the United States government without a warrant, including location information, and for also pushing for even greater transparency. While this transparency report does not provide a full picture to the public about government and civil demands for information, it is rich with information that is essential for citizens around the world to know. Verizon took an important step in the right direction today.

Some of the highlights from the U.S. portion of the report:

Verizon is receiving a flood of demands from law enforcement for customer information and the demands are continuing to rise.

  • We know now that Verizon received 320,000 government demands from federal, state, or local law enforcement in the United States in 2013, an overall increase from 2012.
  • The company received 35,000 demands for location information this past year and stated that demands for this sensitive information — about who we are and where we go — are increasing each year. In addition, the company received 3,200 demands for “cell tower dumps” last year — some of them compelling the company to identify the numbers of all phones that connected to a specific cell tower during a given period of time. Cell tower dump information is ripe for misuse — we know of at least one instance where a cell tower dump was requested for all phones within the vicinity of a planned labor protest.

As we long suspected, the vast majority of the demands for information lack a warrant.

  • Only 36,696 of the 320,000 demands included a warrant based on probable cause.
  • Of the 35,000 demands for location information, only 11,000 included a warrant. In addition, some portion of the 3,200 cell tower dumps also lacked a warrant.

Verizon receives a significant number of National Security Letters, affecting an unknown number of accounts.

Verizon reported that in the past year, the company received between 1,000 and 2,000 National Security Letters from the federal government for information such as name, address, length of service and toll billing records. This is a significant number of National Security letters and unlike Google’s transparency report, Verizon does not specify the number of accounts impacted by these requests.

Verizon has pledged to release regular transparency reports and has called for greater government transparency.

  • Verizon has committed to update its Transparency Report semi-annually with details about the number of demands the company received in the prior six months. This first report fails to include the rate at which Verizon complies with requests, the number of customers affected by the requests, or information on FISA orders. This report also includes very limited information about requests by foreign governments. The company has already pledged that upcoming reports will include compliance rates as well as information about national security requests to the extent legally permissible. We will be watching and hope to see important additional detail in future reports so that customers can properly gauge Verizon’s commitment to privacy.
  • We are also particularly pleased that the company has called on governments to make public the number of demands they make for customer data from telecommunications and Internet companies. The ACLU has been advocating for many years as part of our work on reform of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) that existing reporting requirements for wiretap orders should be extended to all types of law enforcement surveillance requests.

We hope that Verizon will continue to push for even greater transparency, that future reports will include even more detail as allowed by law, and we look forward to AT&T and other companies showing their commitment to their customers’ privacy rights by releasing robust transparency reports as soon as possible.

Learn more about government surveillance and other civil liberty issues: Sign up for breaking news alerts, follow us on Twitter, and like us on Facebook.

Learn More About the Issues on This Page