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Cell phone companies see huge rise in surveillance requests from law enforcement

Saturday, July 14, 2012 by: J. D. Heyes
Tags: cell phones, surveillance, law enforcement

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(NaturalNews) As the police state Leviathan grows ever larger, its tentacles are extending further into the privacy of millions of Americans, aided in large part by technology that enhances our lives at the same time it is being used to dismantle our civil liberties.

The latest disturbing example of this trend is manifested in a statistic released by mobile phone carriers, as part of a congressional inquiry. They report that U.S. law enforcement agencies made 1.3 million requests for the phone records of cell phone customers, adding that such requests have been steadily increasing.

U.S. Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., released the 2011 request figures recently, which were tabulated from data supplied by nine wireless carriers. No one - neither the law enforcement agencies nor the telecommunications firms - are required by law or regulation to report the requests, making it the first time police cell-phone surveillance figures have been released to the public.

According to Reuters, Markey sent letters to the nine carriers in June asking for information on the number of scope of police cell-phone requests following a New York Times report in April that tracking cell phone usage had gotten to be common practice for law enforcement agencies, and with little-to-no oversight.

Too many requests or too little supervision?

Responding to Markey's letters were Verizon Wireless, a joint venture of Verizon Communications Inc. and Vodafone Group Plc; AT&T Inc; Sprint Nextel Corp; T-Mobile USA, a unit of Deutsche Telekom AG; MetroPCS Communications Inc; C Spire Wireless; Cricket Communications Inc, TracFone, a unit of Mexico's American Movil, and U.S.

Officials from Verizon Wireless, the No. 1 U.S. carrier, told Markey the company has seen an average spike in requests of about 15 percent per year over the last five years, and that it responded to about 260,000 requests last year alone.

T-Mobile USA, the No. 4 carrier, reported a 12-to16 percent annual increase, but the company did not provide Markey with the number of requests it receives every year. (Editor's note: A complete list of responses from each carrier can be seen here.)

Markey, a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said more oversight was needed to prevent abuse of customers' rights.

"We cannot allow privacy protections to be swept aside with the sweeping nature of these information requests, especially for innocent consumers," he said in a statement. "Law enforcement agencies are looking for a needle, but what are they doing with the haystack?"

Of the 1.3 million phone record requests, Markey noted that, for comparison, there were only about 3,000 wiretaps issued nationwide in all of 2010.

"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," Markey said.

So frequent are the requests that the companies maintain specific teams to deal with them all, Markey's office said. The companies added that they only release information when they are ordered to do so by a subpoena, or if police agencies can certify they are making the request in response to an emergency where death or serious physical injury could occur.

That said, a press release on Markey's House Web site revealed that in a number of cases, customer data unrelated to any police investigation may be compromised.

Time to amend electronic privacy laws

"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 phone numbers of cell users that connect with a tower during a discreet period of time, including information on innocent people," it said.

The Computer and Communications Industry Association, a technology industry trade group which includes as its members Google Inc., Facebook Inc., Sprint Nextel and Microsoft Corp., voiced concern over the growing demand for user information by law enforcement, saying it appeared to be coming less from a legitimate judge-issued warrant and more from subpoenas without oversight.

"As access to our wireless data gets easier to obtain by government, and we move to using communications methods that don't involve voice such as email and text messaging, there is less reason for them to go through the process of getting a wiretap warrant," said an attorney for the group, Ross Schulman, in a blog post.

CCIA has called on lawmakers to amend the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, passed in 1986 during the Reagan Administration, to expand full warrant protections to mobile and online content, as well as location information.





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