For the first time, cellular companies reported responding to 1.3 million requests for phone user information in 2011. The requests came from law enforcement organizations seeking such information as texts and caller locations.
The reports, a response to an inquiry from Congress, indicate an unprecedented rise in phone surveillance, with carriers responding to emergency requests, subpoenas, court orders, and other such demands for data thousands of times a day.
According to company reports, AT&T alone reports 700 such requests per day; approximately triple those received in 2007. Around 230 of them are classified as “emergencies that do not require the normal court orders and subpoena,” noted the New York Times.
The rise is increasing concerns among consumers, carriers, and regulators as to how consumers’ rights to privacy are being balanced out against law enforcement’s desire for quick access to information.
Generally, a warrant, subpoena or other such court order is required to gain access to cell phone data, but in certain “emergency” situations a simple agency request will suffice. But recent technological advancements, particularly imbedded GPS location technology, have created controversy over what information an emergency request can seek.
Congressional investigators, who made the reports available to the Times, are floored by the number of demands for consumer data. “I never expected it to be this massive,” said Edward J. Markey (D-MA), who requested the information from nine major carriers in April as a response to a Times article on cellular surveillance. ACLU lawyer Chris Calabrese argues the problem is not police use but that “the standards really are all over the place.” “Nobody is saying don’t use these tools,” Calabrese explained. “What we’re saying is do it with consistent standards and in a way that recognizes that these are tools that really can impact people’s privacy.”