WASHINGTON (AP) — Law enforcement agencies in the U.S. made more than 1.3
million requests for consumers’ cellphone records in 2011, an alarming surge
over previous years that reflected the increasingly gray area between
privacy and technology.
Cellphone carriers, responding to inquiries from a member of Congress,
reported responding to as many as thousands of police requests daily for
customers’ locations, text messages and call details, frequently without
warrants. Special legal teams operating round-the-clock have been set up to
field requests, and some carriers hoping to recoup their costs have created
detailed menus of what records can be provided — and for what price.
The reports — the first comprehensive review of the extent of law
enforcement requests in the U.S. — shed light on the difficulties cellphone
carriers face in balancing consumer privacy and public safety. They also
prompted civil libertarians to decry the lack of legal clarity about when
and how carriers should hand over information about their customers.
At AT&T, a team of more than 100 workers handles the requests pouring in
from local, state and federal law enforcement agencies. More than 250,000
such requests came in last year — a more than two-fold increase over five
Sprint said it received about 500,000 subpoenas in 2011. Verizon and
T-Mobile, two other major U.S. carriers, both reported annual increases in
requests exceeding 12 percent. Cricket has seen a steady increase every year
since 2007, and although the company once had a 10-person team handling
inquiries, it has now outsourced that task to a company called Neustar.
Many of the requests cover a number of cellphone subscribers.
The costs have become so large that carriers have started charging law
enforcement for the records they turn over. AT&T collected almost $8.3
million in 2011 in fees from police agencies, although the company said it
believes that number falls far short of what it costs AT&T to accommodate
Police requesting data from U.S. Cellular are asked to pay $25 to locate a
cellphone using GPS (the first three requests are free), $25 to retrieve a
user’s text messages and $50 for a “cell tower dump” — a breakdown of all
the cellphones that interacted with a given cellphone tower at a specific
“Cell phone records have clearly become central to many, many law
enforcement investigations,” said Chris Calabrese, an attorney with the
American Civil Liberties Union. “The danger is that the standard is very
All the companies who responded to letters from Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass.,
said that under normal circumstances, only requests that came with a warrant
attached were granted. T-Mobile said it had referred two inappropriate
requests from law enforcement to the FBI, and rejected other requests where
people had impersonated police officers. Others said they complied with
subpoenas, which don’t require sign-off from a judge.
But there’s a major exception for emergencies, or “exigent circumstances.”
If a 911 call center believes there is an immediate threat to someone’s
life, it can bypass the need for a prosecutor or a judge to sign off on the
request. All that’s needed, in most circumstances, is a simple form.
“If a victim goes missing and they had a cell phone with GPS technology,
would you, as a loved one, want us to have to wait for a subpoena or court
order even though we know someone might be in dire straits?” said Chris
Perkins, the police chief in Roanoke, Va.
Federal law, which has yet to fully adapt to today’s high-tech, wireless
society, has much to say about wiretaps and home searches but surprisingly
little to say about cellphone records. The law is especially vague when it
comes to GPS tracking, a relatively new issue triggered by the widespread
adoption of smartphones.
Many states and local courts have been left to come up with their own
requirements for when a warrant is required to track someone’s location,
leading to an array of conflicting policies that create a headache for those
tracking suspects of victims across state lines.
In May, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., asked the Justice Department how many
requests for location information it had filed with cellphone carriers, and
what legal standard applies when making such requests. The department said
it didn’t keep a running tally and couldn’t offer numbers, but that in
regular criminal investigations, a court order is used to compel carriers to
provide the information.
Those seeking clarification for what is in or out of bounds looked hopefully
in January to the U.S. Supreme Court, which took up the GPS issue when it
ruled that law enforcement cannot attach GPS tracking devices to someone’s
vehicle without a warrant. But the ruling was narrow and didn’t deal
specifically with cellphones already in someone’s possession that happen to
have GPS capabilities.
Bipartisan bills to address the issue were introduced in the House and
Senate a year ago but never moved out of committees.
The Digital Due Process Coalition, an assortment of groups including
cellphone carriers and civil liberties advocates, wants the Electronic
Communications Privacy Act amended to deal with it. That law was enacted in
1986, long before cellphones became a basic accessory.