Cell phone companies see spike in surveillance requests

Mon Jul 9, 2012 9:50pm IST

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* Requests for cell phone records top 1.3 mln last yr

* Markey says concerned privacy ignored

* Carriers staff dozens to handle requests

By Jasmin Melvin

WASHINGTON, July 9 (Reuters) - Cell phone carriers have seen a sharp rise in requests from U.S. law enforcement agencies for their customers' cell phone records, raising privacy concerns and adding a legal burden to mobile phone companies.

Representative Edward Markey on Monday released data from the companies showing more than 1.3 million requests for cell phone records last year.

Verizon Wireless, the No. 1 U.S. carrier, reported an annual 15 percent spike in requests, and No. 4 carrier T-Mobile USA said it has seen a 12 percent to 16 percent increase each year.

"We cannot allow privacy protections to be swept aside with the sweeping nature of these information requests, especially for innocent consumers," said Markey, a senior member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. "Law enforcement agencies are looking for a needle, but what are they doing with the haystack?"

Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, sent letters to nine wireless carriers last month seeking information on the volume and scope of the requests after The New York Times reported cell phone tracking had become common practice for police officials with little or no oversight.

Requests for cell phone records are not subject to any reporting requirements, making the congressional inquiry and Markey's release of the companies' responses the first public accounting of law enforcement's rampant use of cell phone surveillance.

The companies said they maintain dedicated teams to deal with the deluge of requests, and said they only release the information when ordered to do by subpoena or if law enforcement officials certify there is an emergency involving danger of death or serious physical injury.

Verizon said it has a dedicated team of roughly 70 employees, and staffs the legal team 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Sprint employs a team of 36 analysts who receives and reviews court orders for wiretaps and trace devices and then has an additional 175 analysts to respond to court orders for subscriber information.

T-Mobile, meanwhile, also has a dedicated "law enforcement relations" team that works closely with its legal department and privacy team.

Verizon Wireless is a joint venture of Verizon Communications Inc and Vodafone Group Plc, while T-Mobile is a U.S. unit of Deutsche Telekom AG's.

MetroPCS Communications Inc, C Spire Wireless, Cricket Communications Inc, TracFone, a unit of Mexico's American Movil , and U.S. Cellular also responded to Markey's inquiry.

The Obama administration is currently looking for ways to give consumers more control over personal information while surfing the Web on their laptops and mobile phones, following embarrassing privacy blunders, including secretly tracking users' locations via their smartphones.

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