Be careful what you text. According to an accounting report released Monday by Rep. Ed Markey, federal, state, and local law enforcement officials requested approximately 1.3 million cell phone records from major carriers in 2011. These requests were often not specific to a single number, the report says, or even a few numbers; police routinely used the practice of “cell tower dumps,” in which carriers provide all the phone numbers connected to a given cell tower in a particular period of time.
“Law enforcement agencies are looking for a needle,” said the Democrat from Massachusetts. “But what are they doing with the haystack?”
The investigation revealed innocent people’s information — including “geolocation information, content of text messages, wiretaps, among others” — is being collected en masse by law enforcement agencies, which face little accountability as to how they dispose of it.
In his query, Markey asked cell service providers if they “ever accepted money or other forms of compensation in exchange for providing information to law enforcement?”In response, AT&T reported they received $8,253,000 in 2011 for complying with such requests. MetroPCS provided their subpoena compliance sheet detailing how much they charge per service. For example, it costs law enforcement $50 for a “cell tower dump per tower number for a two-hour period,” provided that a court order or search warrant is presented.
Markey’s accounting report is the first of its kind, and he is aware that there are still many questions to be answered. “We need to know,” he said, “how law enforcement differentiates between records of innocent people, and those that are the subjects of investigation, as well as how it handles, administers, and disposes of this information.”