1.3M Cellphone Snooping Requests Yearly? It’s Time for Privacy and Transparency Laws

Photo: jbtaylor/Flickr

The nation’s mobile carriers weren’t kidding in April when they told California lawmakers that they were working “day and night” responding to police inquiries for subscriber information, such as locational data of where the phone was when it made and received calls.

That, they said, made them just too busy to have to report publicly how often they get such requests, and the politically powerful carriers ultimately defeated California legislation requiring them to do so.

But now it’s time for that requirement — as well as increased protection for Americans’ private data — to be made the law of the land.

On Monday, Rep. Edward Markey (D-Massachusetts), as part of a congressional probe, divulged statistics about the number of requests made to cellphone providers, for the first time ever revealing that the carriers assisted law enforcement an eye-popping 1.3 million times last year alone in dishing out subscriber information like text messages, location data and calling records.

There is no oversight at all of these tower dumps

And there was more disturbing information. AT&T revealed it charges a mere $75 for a “tower dump,” which tells police what mobile phones pinged a tower in a given time period, though we have no idea how often this happens or whether police store or share that data.

The nine responding companies to Markey — which reported about a 15 percent annual increase in government demands for subscriber information, did not disclose how many of these so-called tower dumps they performed. The dumps provide to law enforcement any cell phone number that has pinged a tower in a given time frame.

“There is no oversight at all of these tower dumps,” said Christopher Soghoian, a privacy expert. “We don’t know how many tower dumps, or what the government does with the data.”

The big four companies — AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon — and the five others need to report how often they perform these, as thousands of innocent people, including those exercising their rights to protest, can be swept up by such an order, and there’s no warrant required to get them.