Cell surveillance: Congress must set rules for releasing phone data

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Not long ago, law enforcement officials would present a phone company with a search warrant, court order or formal subpoena when requesting information from a person's private phone records. Not anymore.

Today, according to information obtained by Congress from the nation's cell phone carriers, more than 1.3 million demands are made each year by law enforcement for subscriber information -- and not all of these requests come with judicial authorization. Investigators are often interested in phone tracking, text messages and caller location information.

It would shock those who are complacent in the face of government encroachment into Americans' privacy that cell phone companies routinely turn over thousands of records a day.

On average AT&T, the nation's largest carrier, receives 700 requests for records from law enforcement every day, with 230 of them emergency appeals that don't require subpoenas. Other requests are processed despite the lack of proper paper work, signatures and other formal legal requirements. Sometimes the requests are made by law enforcement without any apparent justification.

All cell carriers reported increases in law enforcement requests for records between 12 percent and 16 percent annually since 2007.

The companies told Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., who sought the information from nine cell carriers, that they want to be responsive to law enforcement's legitimate needs to access information in a timely way, but the lack of consistent standards for turning over data has left them open to lawsuits and anger from consumers. It also invites illegal behavior, like fishing expeditions, by law enforcement.

Congress must devise rules that are clear enough to satisfy the carriers, law enforcement and civil liberties defenders who are keeping watch for the sake of consumers.

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