The government asked wireless carriers for user data 1 million times last year

December 9, 2013

(REUTERS/Aly Song)

Law enforcement agencies at the local, state and federal levels made 1.1 million requests for information from wireless carriers last year, according to a congressional probe by Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.)

That's roughly on par from the year before, when letters to Markey from cellular companies showed they had fielded 1.3 million data requests — though this year Markey collected responses from seven carriers rather than nine.

Markey asked the companies to break down the requests by the type of data sought, including real-time and historical geolocation information, SMS content and call metadata, among other things. The companies generally said they didn't categorize the requests that way, nor could they distinguish ordinary law enforcement requests from secret, NSA-related requests approved by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. They did, however, provide details on data retention. Here's T-Mobile:


(T-Mobile)

While the numbers offer the most thorough look yet at how wireless companies respond to government demands for data, one thing is missing that's preventing us from appreciating the true significance of a million requests. Since we don't know how many accounts were covered by each request, it's difficult to know how big a deal this is.

Reporting the number of affected accounts is now routine among the Silicon Valley set, where transparency updates from Google, Microsoft, Facebook and others often specify the figure right alongside the number of requests made. The companies also highlight the share of data requests that resulted in a disclosure of user information. So we know this stuff is trackable.

Markey didn't require the wireless carriers to say. But in future reports, this would be a useful metric to include.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post, focusing on telecom, broadband and digital politics. Before joining the Post, he was the technology correspondent for National Journal and an associate editor at the Atlantic.
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Brian Fung · December 9, 2013