The first phone company to publish a transparency report isn’t AT&T or Verizon

January 9

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Ever since we learned that the country's phone companies were handing vast amounts of data to the government under court order, pressure has been mounting for them to publish a Silicon Valley-type transparency report detailing how exactly they're complying.

Now the first such report is out. But instead of coming from industry mainstays such as Verizon or AT&T, the disclosure comes from a little-known, left-leaning service known as CREDO Mobile.

For the unfamiliar, San Francisco-based CREDO is a progressive organization that supports causes like marriage equality and environmental activism. Its wireless service arm is a small part of that, with around 125,000 subscribers. But the operation helps subsidize the broader organization's political activity, and it's probably safe to say that CREDO Mobile customers are generally in it for ideological reasons.

Still, CREDO Mobile operates just like any other phone service. It partners with Sprint and piggybacks off of its network to provide cellular service to its users. And that means it's subject to the same data requests that its larger cousins routinely face.

According to CREDO Mobile's transparency report, federal, state and local authorities summoned user data from the company 16 times in 2013. That isn't a lot. It makes sense.

One of those cases involved a potentially life-threatening emergency. In 14 cases, CREDO Mobile gave up at least some information in response to the requests, which affect 15 individual user accounts. (This last figure is important, because the impact of an aggregate number of requests is hard to judge without knowing how many real people they cover.)

CREDO also does something very unusual: It breaks down each request not only by type, but also according to the agency that made the request and the state in which the target subscriber lives. The report also discloses whether specific data requests yielded any information.

It probably wasn't too difficult for CREDO to pull together this extra data, given its small size. But it's an enlightening move, and one that other companies would do well to consider adopting in their own disclosures.

Other phone companies — including the nation's four biggest wireless carriers — have spoken about their compliance with government data requests before. But they did so in the context of a congressional probe by Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.). Since then, AT&T and Verizon have vowed to publish a periodic transparency report but have not yet done so.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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