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Law & Order: SVU made it look difficult to get a cell phone provider to hand over records. Turns out it is not that tough or uncommon. A newly released cell phone carrier’s report reveals that providers had 1.3 million requests from law enforcement for text messages, call locations, and other information for evidence in investigations. Thousands of records are turned over the police every day, much more than in past years. In fact, AT&T requests from law enforcement had a 300% increase over what it was in 2007, while they have only had a 50% increase in subscribers. The report was requested by Representative Edward J. Markey. The Massachusetts Democrat read an article on the increase in cell phone tracking last April and was surprised by the results of the report. He revealed, “I never expected it to be this massive.”
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has expressed concerns over the privacy issues. BuzzFeed spoke to Chris Calabrese, Legislative Counsel at the ACLU. "Cellphones generate records on almost everything they do, and those records are extremely helpful to law enforcement," said Calabrese. He added, "Your cellphone is one of the most common ways you're going to encounter a law enforcement officer. And you're likely to never know."
Cell providers walk a thin line between aiding an investigation and protecting a customer’s privacy. Usually a warrant, court order, or subpoena has to be presented before cell records are handed over, but those requirements are overlooked in case of emergencies. The report found that many of the requests were denied because cell carriers found them “legally questionable or unjustified. At least one carrier even referred some inappropriate requests to the F.B.I.”
An emergency request does not have to be approved by a judge and does not require a warrant. It is useful in urgent situations like locating someone who dialed 911, but there are no clear criteria for what constitutes an emergency. There’s also no system in place for determining whether the situation was an emergency after the fact.
According to BuzzFeed, “Nearly everything you send and receive though your phone is within reach of law enforcement.” This is different from landline requests: those are usually only good for call logs and wiretaps. Cell records include geographic locations, call logs, texts messages, wiretaps, and data logs. Law enforcement can easily get “tower dumps,” “in which carriers provide a full list of people who were connected to a tower at a given time — most of whom will have nothing to do with the matter being investigated…” Calabrese also referred to cases where law enforcement paid a suspect’s phone bill so that service would not be cut off, which would cut police off from the data.
The requests are so common that Sprint, which fields about 1,500 requests per day, has developed a web interface for law enforcement requests. While cell records and locations can be indispensible to breaking a case or responding to an emergency, there are privacy issues involved. Perhaps the release of this report will make law enforcement more accountable for their requests.