From Eric Lichtblau at the NY Times:
WASHINGTON — In the first public accounting of its kind, cellphone
carriers reported that they responded to a startling 1.3 million
demands for subscriber information last year from law enforcement
agencies seeking text messages, caller locations and other information
in the course of investigations.
The cellphone carriers’ reports, which come in response to a
Congressional inquiry, document an explosion in cellphone surveillance
in the last five years, with the companies turning over records
thousands of times a day in response to police emergencies, court
orders, law enforcement subpoenas and other requests.
The reports also reveal a sometimes uneasy partnership with law
enforcement agencies, with the carriers frequently rejecting demands
that they considered legally questionable or unjustified. At least one
carrier even referred some inappropriate requests to the F.B.I.
The information represents the first time data have been collected
nationally on the frequency of cell surveillance by law enforcement.
The volume of the requests reported by the carriers — which most likely
involve several million subscribers — surprised even some officials who
have closely followed the growth of cell surveillance.
“I never expected it to be this massive,” said Representative Edward J.
Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat who requested the reports from nine
carriers, including AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon, in response
to an article in April in The New York Times on law enforcement’s expanded use of cell tracking. Mr. Markey, who is the co-chairman of the Bipartisan Congressional Privacy Caucus, made the carriers’ responses available to The Times…
With the rapid expansion of cell surveillance have come rising concerns
— including among carriers — about what legal safeguards are in place
to balance law enforcement agencies’ needs for quick data against the
privacy rights of consumers.
Legal conflicts between those competing needs have flared before, but
usually on national security matters. In 2006, phone companies that
cooperated in the Bush administration’s secret program of eavesdropping
on suspicious international communications without court warrants were
sued, and ultimately were given immunity
by Congress with the backing of the courts. The next year, the F.B.I.
was widely criticized for improperly using emergency letters to the
phone companies to gather records on thousands of phone numbers in
counterterrorism investigations that did not involve emergencies.
Under federal law, the carriers said they generally required a search
warrant, a court order or a formal subpoena to release information
about a subscriber. But in cases that law enforcement officials deem an
emergency, a less formal request is often enough. Moreover, rapid
technological changes in cellphones have blurred the lines on what is
legally required to get data — particularly the use of GPS systems to
identify the location of phones…