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Mobile Carriers’ Report to Congress Shows an Explosion in Law Enforcement Surveillance

Law enforcement demanded access to text messages, caller locations, and other data 1.3 million times in 2011. These figures come from a series of reports issued by the nation’s cellphone carriers, as requested by Congress, and marks the first time such data has been made available.

According to the New York Times, the reports 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.”

AT&T, one carrier mentioned in the story directly, said in their report that they are responding to an average of 700 a day, with more than 200 of them being regarded as emergencies. AT&T’s figures represent three times the requests made in 2007. Overall, the carriers report a jump of 12-16% over the last five years.

Despite the growth in demand, some carriers are fighting the requests, rejecting those deemed questionable legally or those that were unjustified. According to the Times’ article, one unnamed carrier even referred some of the rejected requests to the FBI.

The reports made available to the news agency did not offer a granular view into the types of surveillance requested, but the newspaper noted in Sunday’s article that it “cut across all levels of government — from run-of-the-mill street crimes handled by local police departments to financial crimes and intelligence investigations at the state and federal levels.”

“Because of incomplete record-keeping, the total number of law enforcement requests last year was almost certainly much higher than the 1.3 million the carriers reported...,” the story adds.

“Also, the total number of people whose customer information was turned over could be several times higher than the number of requests because a single request often involves multiple callers.”

The full article form the New York Times is here.  

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Steve Ragan is a security reporter and contributor for SecurityWeek. Prior to joining the journalism world in 2005, he spent 15 years as a freelance IT contractor focused on endpoint security and security training.