It would be nice if we could trust that our cell phone records stayed nice and private in the archives of mobile carriers, but that’s simply not the case.
On Monday, Congressman Ed Markey released the details of an accounting of law enforcement requests for cell phone data, and the numbers are pretty staggering. In 2011 alone, mobile carriers responded to over 1.3 million requests for all kinds of information about cell phone users, from their text messages to their call logs to their locations. AT&T alone revealed that the volume of requests had nearly tripled over the past five years. And that increase does not come without costs. In order to keep up, mobile carriers employ teams of up to 100 people to field and respond to police requests.
Surveillance does not come cheap. The major mobile carriers revealed the costs of responding to hundreds of requests for data per day, and the amounts are not insignificant. To get a wiretap from Verizon costs between $775 and $1,825, and the company reported a boost in revenue between $3 and $5 million each year over the past five years for responding to law enforcement agency requests. In 2011 alone, AT&T took in a whopping $8.2 million for these kinds of requests, up from $5.4 million in 2010. The other major carriers, Sprint and T-Mobile, refused to disclose the amounts they’d collected for the service.
In a certain light, it’s easy to understand the sharp increase and big expense of cell phone records requests. Cell phones are really popular! A 2011 Pew Internet report revealed that 83 percent of Americans owned some kind of cell phone, and in any investigation, the devices hold invaluable information, from location data to conversations between would be culprits. But the privacy concerns are obvious. While there are over a million requests for data, each request could affect many different cell phone users so the number of people affected is much higher. “We cannot allow privacy protections to be swept aside with the sweeping nature of these information requests,” Markey said in a statement. “Law enforcement agencies are looking for a needle, but what are they doing with the haystack?”