Privacy SOS

We are about to learn a lot more about how the government spies on our phones

Massachusetts democrat Senator Ed Markey has sent another round of letters to telecoms asking for details pertaining to government demands for user information. In 2011, then-Congressman Markey sent similar letters, prompting shocking disclosures about the extent to which state, local and federal law enforcement are demanding our private information from our cell phone companies.

Markey's previous round of requests found that telecoms responded to over one million surveillance demands in one year. That number might not sound so large in a nation of hundreds of millions, but each request likely ensnared the private user information of many, or even thousands of people.

Today's letters, sent to all of the major telecom companies, show that Senator Markey has learned a lot about what exactly to ask for, and how to ask for it. The requests are much more detailed, and seek not only the number of requests received by each company, but also a range of critical data on questions congress and the public need answered before we can understand how to reform our system.

The letters ask for a breakdown by type of government demand, as well as specific data on whether or not agencies asked for:

  • geolocation information (whether historical or real-time location tracking data); 
  • call detail records (from pen registers and trap and traces);
  • text message content;
  • voicemails;
  • cell tower dumps;
  • wiretaps;
  • subscriber information, such as name and billing data; and 
  • mobile internet usage data (what websites you visit on your phone, for example).

The letters further ask:

  • how many requests were made in emergency situations, how many the companies denied, and for what reasons, and how many were made by federal, state or local law enforcement agencies;
  • how long companies retain user data;
  • specific details about tower dumps, including how many cell phone users are swept up in each dump;
  • how many Section 215 (or Patriot Act 'Business Records') requests companies received;
  • for details about how companies process requests, including the legal standards they ask law enforcement agencies to meet for each type of request;
  • for evidence of abuse on the part of law enforcement requesters;
  • whether companies have knowledge of law enforcement using cell phone sniffers (called 'Stingrays'), and whether the phone companies help police use these tools; and
  • how much money the phone companies made off of their robust surveillance business over the year.

Markey asked the phone companies to provide substantive responses to his questions by October 3, 2013. That doesn't seem like a lot of time to comply with these detailed requests for information, but the telecoms have big government affairs offices that are tasked with responding to surveillance requests, and make lots of money off of their compliance. Perhaps they can take a couple days off of spying on us and focus on getting back to the Senator from Massachusetts.

More sunlight is coming. Doesn't it feel good?

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.