Wireless Carriers Report on Extent of Law Enforcement Mobile Tracking Requests

Published On July 9, 2012 | By Melissa Maalouf | Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), General, Privacy, Wiretap Act

Today Congressman Ed Markey publically released the letters he received from 9 wireless carriers in response to his May inquiry regarding the carriers’ requests from law enforcement for their subscribers’ personal information.  This inquiry marks the first accounting of the number and type of such requests by law enforcement.

Markey’s May inquiry asked carriers about their policies and procedures for sharing subscriber information with law enforcement following a New York Times article reporting that law enforcement has been increasingly using mobile phone tracking as a routine tool.  Specifically, Markey’s letter asked for the number of requests carriers received over the last 5 years from law enforcement regarding subscriber phone usage and location, the protocols the carriers follow in responding to a request, whether the carriers have encountered law enforcement misuse of cell phone tracking, whether law enforcement asks to use their own tracking devices, and whether the carriers receive compensation from law enforcement.

The carriers’ responses revealed that in 2011 alone, law enforcement agencies made over 1.3 million requests for consumers’ cell phone records (including geolocation information, content of text messages, and wiretaps), and that this number has been increasing at a rapid rate over the last 5 years.  The responses also explained that law enforcement sometimes requests “cell tower dumps,” which include the disclosure of all phone numbers of cell users that connect with a tower during a certain period of time.  The carriers noted that such requests are always made pursuant to a warrant or emergency situation, and emphasized that they have frequently rejected law enforcement demands that they consider to be without legal merit.

The responses further demonstrated that as law enforcement has increased cell phone tracking activities, carriers have also seen the number of warrants for wiretapping decline by 14%, showing that law enforcement is now favoring cell phone tracking techniques to more costly and burdensome wiretapping activities.

In response to the carriers’ letters, Markey emphasized the importance of protecting the privacy of mobile phone users given law enforcements’ trend of utilizing mobile tracking tools, and explained that we “need to know how law enforcement differentiates between records of innocent people, and those that are subjects of investigation, as well as how it handles, administers, and disposes of this information.”

About The Author

Melissa Maalouf’s practice focuses on advising a broad range of clients, from start-ups to established companies, on both U.S. and international data privacy and security issues. Melissa assists clients in drafting appropriate website disclosures, implementing legally-compliant e-commerce flows, responding to FTC Section 5 and state AG enforcement actions, analyzing advertising claims, and children’s online privacy and safety issues. She also regularly helps clients obtain certification under the EU-US Safe Harbor and navigate compliance with divergent international privacy laws.

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