Verizon transparency report reveals 320,000 data requests in 2013

January 22

Verizon says federal, state and local authorities asked it to hand over user data 321,545 times in 2013, in a report it vowed to produce following the National Security Agency revelations made by former contractor Edward Snowden.

The vast majority of requests, about 164,000, came from law enforcement subpoenas, followed by about 71,000 court orders. In 2013, the company fielded 7,800 requests for real-time information about a person's outbound and inbound calls — but of those, only about 1,500 were actual wiretap requests leading to the surveillance of a call's content.

The report also shows a growing government appetite for location data. Last year, the company saw 35,000 requests for such information. Some 3,200 constituted "tower dumps," or information on all the calls logged by a cell tower within a certain time frame. This information can be used to track a suspect's movements and behavior. According to a congressional probe, law enforcement agencies made 9,000 tower dump requests last year — meaning Verizon was the recipient of more than a third of them.

According to Verizon, the number of overall requests it received this year was greater than the figure for 2012, although this is the first time the company has produced a transparency report.

The report is unusually thorough compared to similar disclosures by other companies, explaining what each type of request is and how the company responds. It also sets up a FAQ for each section of the report and answers questions about, for instance, whether Verizon tracks the percentage of requests that yielded some data; the answer is no, but the company pledges to start doing so for future reports.

What we still don't know is how many individual accounts were affected by the data requests, a number that should help put the figures Verizon has disclosed in greater perspective. I've asked a Verizon spokesperson and will update if and when I receive a reply.

Verizon is now the second telecom operator to publish a transparency report, after the California-based network operator CREDO Mobile. AT&T has also promised to release a transparency report but has not issued one yet. In the months after Snowden's leak first came to light, companies such as Google and Microsoft have been asking the government for greater permission to disclose what they hand over. Telecom operators have been less enthusiastic about petitioning the Justice Department, but they have now begun to open up, as well. In a speech last week, President Obama announced a series of reforms, some of which would make it easier for businesses to talk more openly about the data requests they receive.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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