The government has asked Verizon for customer data 149,000 times this year. And it’s only July.


Verizon v. F.C.C. arguments begin today. (Justin Sullivan/GETTY IMAGES)

Verizon's just published its second-ever transparency report, showing that in the first six months of 2014, the company received nearly 149,000 requests for customer data from the government. That's fewer than the 160,000 times that federal, state and local law enforcement asked Verizon for information on its customers during a similar period in 2013.

For the first time, Verizon's described (albeit in pretty general terms) the number of Americans affected by each request. Of the more than 72,000 requests that came in the form of a subpoena during the first half of the year, 90 percent targeted three or fewer customers, according to the company.

"On average, each subpoena sought information about 1.8 selectors," Verizon notes in its report, using the term for specific personal information like phone numbers that can be used to help identify a customer.

Detailing how many customers were affected by data demands is a crucial part of interpreting the raw number of overall requests. Requests can be written broadly or tailored narrowly. Complying with a broad request means potentially disclosing information on way more than just one customer. Verizon says that although "it may not make the headlines, Verizon commonly pushes back" against requests that are written too broadly.

All this is still taking place against the backdrop of the NSA surveillance debate, which the House voted to rein in (somewhat) earlier this year. In the first six months of 2014, Verizon received somewhere between zero and 999 national security letters (the government only allows companies to report those requests as a range). As many as 3,000 customers may have been affected by those requests. Verizon added in its report that it's still unable to talk about any phone records collection you may or may not have heard people talking about.

"We note that while we now are able to provide more information about national security orders that directly relate to our customers," the company said, "reporting on other matters, such as any orders we may have received related to the bulk collection of non-content information, remains prohibited.

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 · July 8