According to reports submitted to Congress this month, nine cellular telephone service providers responded to a combined total of at least 1.3 million requests from law enforcement officers for information about subscribers throughout the country in 2011. Investigators reportedly sought information regarding the content of text messages, the location of cell phones, and other mobile telephone subscriber records. The cellular companies told Congress they responded to thousands of requests from both law enforcement agencies and the courts every day throughout the year. The carriers also stated they often rejected or referred requests from law enforcement officials that they deemed questionable to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The reports were the first time that the rate of law enforcement requests for information from mobile phone providers was collected and published. Some officials expressed surprise at the sheer volume of the requests. Massachusetts Representative Edward J. Markey, Co-Chairman of the Bipartisan Congressional Privacy Caucus and the man who requested the mobile carrier reports, stated the rate at which cellular user data was sought by investigators in 2011 was well beyond his expectations.
Although cellular providers did not categorize information requests based on the type of law enforcement agency that requested user data, it appears as if the requests sought information regarding a wide array of suspected crimes. Additionally, the number of requests has reportedly increased rapidly over the past five years. For example, AT&T stated the company now typically receives about 700 daily requests which is three times the number of inquiries it received in 2007. Of those, about 230 requests are considered an emergency and do not require a subpoena. Meanwhile, Sprint stated the company responded to approximately 1,500 requests per day in 2011. The actual number of mobile telephone users affected by information requests last year was likely much higher as law enforcement officials regularly request data on a particular cell tower in lieu of a particular user. This means information about thousands of people may be gathered in a single request.
As the number of annual information requests to cellular providers continues to grow, carriers and citizens are said to be increasingly concerned over individual privacy rights. Although the mobile providers claim they normally require a court-ordered search warrant before they will turn over subscriber information, they will often release information without a subpoena to investigators in the event of a so-called emergency. Just what constitutes an emergency, however, is not entirely clear. Rapidly advancing technology such as GPS systems further blur the lines with regard to what is a legal information disclosure.
While cellular user data requests skyrocketed, the number of warrants issued to investigators for wiretaps declined by 14 percent in 2011. Many believe this is due, in part, to the relative ease of obtaining mobile telephone user information. Unfortunately, this level of ease means investigators may be regularly obtaining information about people who have never even committed a crime. Additionally, it is unclear where and for how long cell telephone user information is stored by law enforcement officers.
The information provided to Congress is just another example of how new technology is increasingly being used by federal agencies in violation of an individual’s constitutional right to be free from illegal search and seizure. Cellular telephone records are being used by the United States Justice Department and other law enforcement agencies to monitor your private communications in the hopes of charging you with a crime. Other constitutional rights and privacy guarantees may also be violated by federal investigators. Anyone accused of a federal crime in Texas should discuss their case with an experienced criminal lawyer before it is too late.
If you were accused of committing a federal crime in the State of Texas, you should contact a skilled Marfa criminal defense attorney as soon as possible.
New Technology Means Electronic Communications Increasingly Monitored in Texas, Nationwide, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, July 22, 2012
Owner, Three Employees of Defunct Pharr, Texas Medical Supply Company Accused of Wire and Health Care Fraud, Texas Criminal Lawyer Blog, July 10, 2012
More Demands on Cell Carriers in Surveillance, by Eric Lichtblau, New York Times