[JURIST] US Representative Edward Markey (D-MA) [official website; press release] on Monday released data from wireless carriers showing large increases in law enforcement agencies’ requests for customer cell phone records. Last month Markey sent letters to nine cell phone companies [materials] requesting details about their policies and practices for sharing customer phone records with law enforcement. Markey found that more than 1.3 million requests were made by federal, state and local agencies in 2011, with some companies reporting around 15 percent annual increases in numbers of requests. Requests for cell phone records are not subject to any reporting requirements [Reuters report], making the congressional inquiry the first of its kind. Markey noted that his release of the companies’ responses constitutes the first public accounting of law enforcement’s use of cell phone surveillance:
We cannot allow privacy protections to be swept aside with the sweeping nature of these information requests, especially for innocent consumers. Law enforcement agencies are looking for a needle, but what are they doing with the haystack? 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.
The types of information requested include geolocation information, content of text messages, wiretaps and others. Markey’s reply letters indicated that all requests to the cell phone companies were made pursuant to a legal warrant, or granted due to an emergency situation in which an individual was in imminent danger.
Markey has been a strong advocate of consumer rights as they are handled by companies in the telecommunications and other technology fields. In January Markey and seven other lawmakers sent a letter [text, PDF] to Google CEO Larry Page containing 11 questions regarding consumer privacy rights [JURIST report] as affected by Google’s new privacy policies. A month later Markey and Representative Joe Barton (R-TX), both members of the Congressional Bi-Partisan Privacy Caucus [official website], and Cliff Stearns, of the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations [official website], sent a letter [JURIST report] to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) [official website] asking it to look into possibly unlawful privacy practices by Google. Last May Markey and Barton released a draft bill that would restrict companies [JURIST report] from tracking the Internet activity of minors without parental consent. That was the same month US Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) introduced a bill [JURIST report] amending the 25-year-old Electronic Communications and Privacy Act (EPCA), which he authored, to require the government to obtain a warrant before searching private e-mails and other data stored on an Internet cloud.