Law Enforcement Mobile Phone Requests Raise Privacy Concerns in Washington

1.3 million made last year

Is tracking consumers across the Internet more or less frightening than law enforcement's habit of requesting personal data from mobile phone carriers? An eye-popping 1.3 million requests were made for the cell phone records of consumers last year by police agencies, according to data compiled by Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.).

The report is the first comprehensive analysis of enforcement requests for mobile phone information and could open up a whole new privacy debate in Washington.

Markey, co-chairman of the Bipartisan Congressional Privacy Caucus, last month queried nine mobile wireless companies about their policies and practices for sharing customers' mobile phone information with law enforcement, following a report in the New York Times that reported routine requests were made with little judicial oversight and no consumer knowledge.

In some cases, the requests included what is called a "cell tower dump," which provides the phone numbers of all the cell users that connect with a certain tower during a period of time, meaning that the records of innocent consumers would be included in the data dump. Data shared with law enforcement often includes geolocation information, the content of text messages and wiretaps.

"We cannot allow privacy protections to be swept aside with the sweeping nature of these information requests, especially for innocent consumers," Markey said in a statement. "We need to know how law enforcement differentiates between records of innocent people, and those that are subjects of investigation, as well as how it handles, administers, and disposes of this information."

Law enforcement requests are on the upswing. Verizon, for example, told Markey's office that requests were up 15 percent. T-Mobile reported an increase of 12 to 16 percent.